Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) will be a key issue for thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State as the weather gets warmer, say aid workers.
“As the hot season approaches, intervention measures are needed to solve the problem of drinking water shortages and reduce the risks of water-borne disease,” said Tun Thaung, project supervisor of Myanmar Health Assistant Association (MHAA), speaking from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State.
According to the UN, some 115,000 people are still displaced in Rakhine following inter-communal violence in June and October 2012, in which thousands of homes and buildings were burned or destroyed and dozens of people killed. About 85 percent of the IDPs are in and around Sittwe.
The displaced, most of them ethnic (Muslim) Rohingya, live in temporary, overcrowded relief camps, where conditions are harsh. Others are scattered across the state, living under tight security in their destroyed villages.
Government estimates suggest there are 56 IDP camps in nine townships - more than half of them in Sittwe.
About 5 percent of the IDPs are in urban settings, predominately ethnic Rakhine, while 95 percent are Rohingya, in rural areas.
“[WASH] Coverage remains uneven between urban camps populated by Rakhine ethnic IDPs and rural ones, mostly inhabited by Rohingya populations,” said Bertrand Bainvel, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative in Myanmar.
According to an inter-agency needs assessment (carried out between 29 October and 9 November) covering 18 IDP settlements and more than 36,000 people, 60 percent of those assessed lacked access to sufficient drinking water, while 70 percent lacked access to adequate sanitation.
Call for action
In December, UNICEF called for urgent action, warning that vulnerable groups, including children, were at the greatest risk of diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases.
Some areas of Rakhine face drinking water shortages every year during the hot season which lasts from March to May, said San Thein, team leader of local NGO Action Based Community Development. “Drinking water is especially scarce in April and May,” he said.
Most IDPs receive their drinking water from groundwater lifted through hand pumps or stored in rainwater tanks. However, some camps do not have groundwater and those using stored rainwater through the dry season are likely to run out by late January.
Beyond Sittwe, the situation is worse, say aid workers.
The WASH situation in Pauk Taw and Myebon is horrible," said Matthew Edward Gray, head of mission with Solidarites International, citing communal tensions impeding any response for Myebon, massive logistical constraints, as well as a lack of other aid workers for Pauk Taw.
“If we don’t act soon to provide WASH systems in Myebon and Pauk Taw particularly, the situation can be desperate in one or two months and can turn into a health crisis.”
Agencies also note personal hygiene has yet to be adequately promoted at the camps, while building enough latrines for camp residents remains problematic.
About 35 percent of Rakhine residents practice open defecation, a practice that predates the conflict. Some health workers, however, are optimistic that more people will give up the practice as the promotion of personal hygiene is increased.
“To compare with the previous situation, more and more people are using latrines these days, which is encouraging,” said Naing Soe Aye, Rakhine-based project manager with The Consortium of Dutch NGOs, which has been working in Myanmar since early 2008.
Latrine pits filling up
Agencies also fear sanitation conditions will deteriorate the longer IDPs stay in the camps: Temporary latrines being used by large numbers of people have pits filling up rapidly, roughly every three months, without drainage and proper waste disposal options.
“In some camps, space is a major constraint for building latrines, and will be a bigger problem when the present latrine pits fill,” Bainvel said.
And without a decision relating to the proper relocation of the IDPs, UNICEF is concerned that whatever progress has been made will be reversed, increasing the likelihood of disease outbreaks as the rainy season approaches.
Many of the camps are built in low-lying areas and may also be prone to flooding.
“The IDPs will unlikely return to their previous homes in the short term,” MHAA’s Tun Thaung said. “The longer they stay at the camps, the more health concerns there will be."