The nearest hospital is far away and largely out of reach for most of the people in Myanmar’s Rakhine State on the border to Bangladesh. People here are at risk on multiple fronts as they are living in isolation, poverty and uncertainty, and with lack of access to infrastructure and basic services.
Their limited mobility is caused by continuous conflict and a consequence of decades of civil war and ethnic strives. In several instances, displaced communities are facing significant movement restrictions that are imposed by local authorities on stateless and ethnic minority groups.
More recently, the general situation and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar is aggravated and seen to escalate countrywide since the military took power in February 2021.
It is in this context, and with waves of COVID-19 sweeping through Myanmar compounding the crisis, that DRC works to provide emergency aid and support to people in need. Building resilience and capacity to better cope with the health crisis is critical in areas with little or no public services. It improves basic living and health conditions – and ultimately saves lives.
The purpose of DRC WASH programmes is to ensure equitable, inclusive, and safe access to drinking water for domestic purposes according to international standards. It also establishes functional disposal systems and access to hygiene items and community-tailored messages. All together these interventions help enabling health seeking behavior for conflict-affected communities that are vulnerable and even more exposed to health- and hygiene-related risks.
DRC has built a network of trained incentive workers to help coordinate and implement directly within communities. They are engaged in a wide range of activities covering hygiene kit distribution, hygiene promotion messaging, pond renovation and fencing construction, as well as establishing water supply systems, water quality testing, latrine construction, latrine and bathroom maintenance, and solid waste management.
Rakhine is one of seven states and home to an estimated 3.2 million (2014 census) out of the country’s 51.48 million people, and where the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, come from. For decades, Rohingya have suffered from systemic human rights violations and persecution culminating in the Summer of 2017 when hundreds of thousands fled across the border to seek protection in neighboring Bangladesh.
Across the border in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, the influx of people seeking protection immediately grew into the world’s largest refugee camp, now hosting more than 860,000 Rohingya. Today, the number of Rohingya living outside the country exceeds those who remain in Myanmar. They are concentrated in Rakhine with an estimated one million Rohingya living there.
Ethnic strife and conflict across Myanmar have forced thousands of individuals, families and entire communities, including in Rakhine, to leave their homes and relocate in search of other and safer areas.
They have had to start all over – from finding shelter, food, water and new sources of income to sustain themselves, as well as to establishing simple but safe sanitation facilities and practices which have become ever important with the COVID-19 pandemic. These camps are far from static settings, but they continue to grow in size as conflict in Rakhine State and the wider country is deepening.
Years on, they are still there in what in several cases has turned into established and confined camps for internally displaced, and with new generations born into what was intended as interim settlements and short-term solutions. Most of the internally displaced in this state are Rohingya who have limited prospects of returning to the homes they once fled from, little freedom of movement and hardly any resources to address the vast needs in the camps.
Latrines have been built by DRC in camps for internally displaced in Rakhine to offer dignified access to gender segregated sanitation facilities. Doors are fitted with locks to provide safety and privacy, particularly for women and girls. The latrines and bath stations are constructed to be child friendly and disability inclusive. Tree planting around the latrine areas is an environmentally friendly approach which makes use of grey waters for irrigating banana plants which again contributes to nutrition diversification.
Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and Sittwe are among the townships in Rakhine with the highest number of internally displaced in Myanmar. DRC has worked in these areas since 2012 to support the displaced as well as the villages around and in conjunction with the camps. During 2021, WASH projects have been implemented by DRC in 10 camps for internally displaced and five villages around them.
‘DRC continues to work on the ground directly with conflict-affected communities wherever this is possible. This means that we deliver services in the camps, but also to the villages in areas hosting them. We work closely with local partners and aid organisations in Myanmar, and have built a strong network of partners both in Rakhine and across the states where DRC works. But free and unhindered access to people in need is challenged, and in some cases delay or block aid - also in Rakhine. We are voicing these concerns of isolated communities across the country who suffer from isolation and increasing food-insecurity. They are already vulnerable and marginalised, but the current situation is putting their limited resilience under even more pressure,’ says Martin Vane.
DRC WASH activities in Myanmar’s Rakhine State are funded by the European Union (EU), Myanmar Humanitarian Fund (MHF) and the Australian Government.
COVID-19 related lockdowns have forced people into isolation also in Myanmar, affecting poor and vulnerable communities in particular.
While the number of Covid-19 cases are on the rise and medical capacity often fail to respond, humanitarian needs are soaring. Aid is there, but delivery is stuck. A nationwide curfew keeps all at home and prevents DRC and fellow NGOs from reaching desperate people waiting for help.