Yesterday, August 25th, I was at the computer preparing a talk for a Symposium at Duquesne Universisty on Global Sustainability. My working title is: “Water, Refugees, and Geophysics – Are Humanitarian Water Problems 'Our' Problems?” Nevertheless, when WhatsAPP started buzzing on my phone, and I saw the call was coming from Bangladesh, I still had to think for a moment whether or not this was "My" problem.
On a very scratchy connection, that might as well have been coming from a phone under water in a monsoon flooded ravine in a remote corner of Bangladesh, was Sattar Islam Nirob. Sattar is a Rohingya aid worker and Rohingya youth representative (to UNHCR). We met in Cox’s Bazar in November, 2017.
Being Canadian, my first question of course was “how is the weather?” The monsoon rains had stopped for the moment.
He had called to remind me of the 1 year anniversary of the August 25, 2017 beginning of the latest round of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, the mass exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, the murders, the rapes, the orphans, and the protests. “What protests?” I asked. And what are they asking for? Sattar said thousands of men and women were protesting in the camps, requesting not for food nor housing, but with only two demands…secure human rights, and international protection. “Send me pictures?” I asked. And here they are.
I am willing to ignore the “cultural appropriation” seen in the photos. “Never again” was likely first widely used in association with the last stand of the Jews against the Romans at Massada, and of course became part of the lingua franca in association with the Warsaw Ghetto, Dachau, and the Holocaust in general. Given that last week in Singapore, on August 22nd, the honorary Canadian citizen, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and Myanmar leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi alluded to transforming the Rohingya’s Rakhine state into a beach resort for foreigners, how many more UN and Canadian envoys must be sent to Bangladesh before the words Never Again are put into action?
November 8, 2017
Colin Miazga and I had been planning since June to do a water exploration program in the Nayapara and Leda refugee camps. In June, 2017, the population of the former was about 14,240 refugees, and of the latter, 19,230 Rohingya. But with the final round of violence beginning August 25th, Nayapara increased to 35,000 Rohingya, and Leda to 23,000 Rohingya. We moved up our start date, and expanded our crew to five. Our goal was to supplement or replace the surface water supply with a groundwater supply. We believe we have succeeded, though drilling and well testing will be the proof.
Today we moved to the Kutupalong Expansion site. Here, there are about 2000 wells, and almost every well finds water. But the wells are shallow, and largely contaminated by e. coli and other pathogens. Our goal here is to explore for deeper and better protected aquifers. Before August 25th, the refugee population of the Kutupalong Expansion Site was 99,705 Rohingya. Today, it is about 450,000. Or rather, 450,000!!!! You may have heard it or read it, but the repeated phrasing is true, people as far as the eye can see, in all directions.
We had to walk a 1.5 km obstacle course with our equipment to get into the exploration area. We hired Rohingya to carry the lighter equipment. Colin, Alastair, Chris, and Eric carried the heavy gear, including the 35 kg cable reels.
Think Chalmun’s Cantina in the pirate city of Mos Eisley of Star Wars. Think the dystopic future of Mad Max. Imagine the foothills of Nepal, but clear cut of all trees and rhododendrons, dusty, post-apocalyptic. The area was jungle, inhabited until 3 months ago by Asian elephants. Think of a city built of plastic tarps and bamboo. A dense, urban ant colony where everyone cooks with wood, and not a chimney to be seen. No wonder respiratory infections exceed water borne diseases. And though the Rohingya seem to be gentle and quiet people, the cacophony of the white noise of 450,000 people simply living is like being in a chicken coop.
Working in the camps in the south was a good warm up, so I only got choked up once in Kutupalong today, and for good reason. An elderly…very elderly woman was crossing one of the rickety bamboo bridges with a massive load of firewood balanced on her head. The Burmese army altered the demographics by removing a significant percentage of young men, leaving many elderly women and young children to fend for themselves. There was no way she was going to be able to make the large step off the bridge without stumbling or falling. I moved ahead to grab her arm and steady her. But before she could take the step, one of the 20 year old Polytechnic students transferred the entire mass of firewood off her head onto his shoulder, lowered himself from the bridge. He continued walking with the woman and her firewood to her tarped bamboo hut.
A CTV film crew had an extra day after filming Bob Rae’s visit. They spent the entire day with us, filming the march in and out, interviewing us all, capturing some fantastic footage of manually drilling a water well to 100 m depth from a bamboo drilling rig, and providing a welcome distraction to everything around us. Somehow they will boil it all down to a two minute clip likely to appear in the next few days.
...from a November 7, 2017 short interview interview I had on the Calgary eyeopener.
An October 26 interview with CBC Radio and TV about our upcoming water exploration program in the Rohingya Refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh. As of today, there are about 830,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled from Myanmar, with 620,000 having arrived only since August 25. The monsoon rains are ending, and they will need to move to yet undeveloped groundwater supplies.
Calgarians helping Rohingya refugeeshttp://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/calgary-eyeopener
We geophysicists are very fortunate in the circumstances of our work in the Nayapara and Leda Refugee Camps. We are now interacting very closely with the refugee community. And we can have translation facilitated conversations about some quite intimate situations – water sources, distance to latrines, number of persons in the household, time spent collecting water, etc. However, the really heavy conversations about what happened in Myanmar are optional. Very much like after the Boxing Day Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, and very much unlike the refugees of Kakuma, I find the Rohingya are very open to talk about what happened in their homes and villages.
Personally, though, I am not yet ready to listen. I can somewhat comfortably absorb the deplorable and insane conditions we are now seeing daily. The fact that the lack of clean and sufficient volumes of water has a technical solution, and we are here trying to do something about it, makes it easy to dive back into the chaos each day. But there is no solution or explanation to the atrocities that took place on the opposite side of the Naf River….and all in full view of satellites, dogs, and other wonders of modern day technology.
Working on Holocaust sites in Eastern Europe has taught me that there are no bounds to the creativity of evil. Returning to Kakuma again and again has taught me that people can adapt to living in the most insane conditions, though those on the outside would glibly call this human resilience. Seeing the havoc in Uganda from 23 minutes of civil war, waged by the would-be magician Joseph Kony and a tiny army of 3,000 soldiers, along with thousands of child soldiers, taught me that governments can actively choose to do nothing when there is every reasonable reason to do everything.
We missed seeing Canada`s special envoy, Bob Rae, here in Cox`s Bazar. Rather, I prefer to think that he missed seeing us. In fact, besides the UNHCR staff that occasionally drop by, we do not see any westerners or foreign NGO workers in the camps in the south….just us and the client, all tens of thousands of them.
November 4, 2017
It is always very clear over the first day or two of an exploration program which individual is the most important member of the team. The learning curve is very steep for all 5 of us Canadians here. None of us speak more than a few words of Bangla. We do not have enough knowledge of the Bengali script to differentiate between the sign for a maternal health center and a tire repair shop. As we pull our cables through cities of plastic sheeting and mud, we have to constantly be aware that these are people`s homes; though, we do not have the cultural or language skills to properly excuse ourselves or ask for permission to pass.
And as we try to make sense of our results, we need to ``ground truth`` our interpretations and fancy 3D visualizations against existing wells of known locations, depths, construction, flow rates, and water quality…but how do you find these water points when they might be inside a walled compound of the village head man, or inside a military post, or in a sunken concrete vault in the midst of a rice field.
Our four Bangladeshi Polytechnic students have neither the English nor social mindset to help us in this regard. While the UN water Channing Tatum and his friends have an overall conceptualization of the hydrogeology and water use situation, they are lacking on-the-ground details. Our field schedules and the already ongoing water and sanitation crisis do not allow for the needed month long methodical, patient, water point and water use survey over vast areas of refugee settlement.
As such, and as is often the case, our most critical staff persons become our Bangladeshi drivers, Shajahan, Adur Rauf, and Younus. They are our translators, social facilitators, cultural advisers, treaty makers, negotiators of property access, and of course very skilled drivers. They quickly guide us to existing water wells that fall on our lines. They ask permission for us to cross unharvested rice fields. They negotiate settlements if we create any minor damage during our field work.
We have now moved from the agrarian areas beyond the main settlements, and into the densely populated, spontaneous, makeshift, and registered refugee camps. We needed the warm up as combining the social and human challenges with the logistical and technical quandaries of the first few days would have been overwhelming. But we are now very much enjoying interacting with the refugee population. And we believe we are having some success, as we have crossed a few sandstone units and likely aquifers. We are now chasing these aquifers down to determine their extents, and where they may exist in closer proximity to existing surface reservoirs and emergency water treatment facilities.
And we even had a few minutes to enjoy fresh coconut juice and a spectacular sunset on the beach on our drive home last night.
On October 29th, Alastair McClymont, Colin Miazga, Eric Johnson, Chris Slater, and Paul Bauman left Calgary and Vancouver with 24 pieces of baggage, most weighing 32 kg, for a two week water exploration program for the Rohingya Refugees in southeast Bangladesh. We left before the sun rose on Thursday, arrived in Dhaka after midnight on Saturday (minus three boxes of cables), and were menage a trois with UNHCR and Oxfam logisticians and WASH (WAter, Sanitation, and Hygiene) officers by Sunday afternoon. There was a lot to sort out – where would we go, how would we get there, and what exactly would we do.
Jet lagged with the 12 hour time difference and the stress of moving 560 kg of baggage from Calgary to Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, and none of us speaking a word of Bengali or Bangla as they often call the language, we worked in the more bucolic areas near, but outside the Nayapara and Leda Camps on Monday and Tuesday. Today, November 3, we began exploring for water on the edges of the camps themselves, beginning with Leda.
The geology has already pulled a few surprises, but so have the Teknaf Peninsula of Bangladesh and the people that live there, including the Rohingya refugees. We are just beginning to figure out the geology; and, we are just beginning to comprehend what has happened in Myanmar since August 25th, and what is now going on within the now 850,000 person Rohingya refugee population in the southeastern most corner of Bangladesh.
Blogging by Paul Bauman