Natural Disasters

Along the Naf: A million Rohingyas could be sitting ducks, with ‘Super Cyclone’ Mocha’s eye passing through their camps

Forget about preparation, many do not know even a cyclone is coming, say locals; India urged to provide regional leadership    

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Saturday 13 May 2023
Along the Naf: A million Rohingyas could be sitting ducks, with Super Cyclone Mocha’s eye passing through their camps
Rohingya shanties silhouetted against a dark sky. Photo by special arrangement Rohingya shanties silhouetted against a dark sky. Photo by special arrangement

More than a million Rohingyas could become sitting ducks in the path of ‘Super Cyclone’ Mocha, a climate expert told this reporter even as the storm is all set to make landfall around noon on May 14, 2023.

Mocha’s eye will pass right through the refugee camps housing the beleaguered community on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. The expert also said India needs to provide regional leadership.

“The Rohingyas are caught in the eye of the storm now and are sitting ducks since nobody may care about their plight,” Raghu Murtugudde, an earth scientist and weather expert attached to Indian Institute of Technology Mumbai and University of Maryland, said.

“India needs to show regional leadership in climate action and build on the work already being done in terms of sharing forecasts,” Murtugudde added.

The scientist underlined that “vulnerabilities of our neighbours are our vulnerabilities and also a national security issue”.

Along the Naf

National Bulletin No 25, issued by India Meteorological Department (IMD) at 12.30 pm on May 13, 2023, said the ‘Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm’ Mocha” was still 680 kilometres south-southwest of Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh) and 600 km southwest of Sittwe (Myanmar).

The communiqué further stated that:

It is very likely to cross southeast Bangladesh and north Myanmar coasts between Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh) and Kyaukpyu (Myanmar), close to Sittwe (Myanmar) around noon of 14th May, 2023 as a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm with maximum sustained wind speed of 150-160 kmph gusting to 175 kmph.

Incidentally, Sittwe is less than 100 km from Tecnaf in Bangladesh, a border town separated by the Naf river with Myanmar, housing 260,000 refugees.

The IMD bulletin ruled out Mocha as a super cyclone but pointed out that the cyclone gust may reach 220 km per hour before landfall, with maximum sustained surface wind speeds reaching 190-200 kmph before landfall. Cyclones are called ‘super cyclones’ when the sustained wind speed crosses 221 kmph.

Murtugudde however pointed out that “rapid intensification may happen as the Bay is warm and the cyclone is moving slowly over the ocean and gaining lots of energy; and just before hitting the land it may reach super cyclone category”.

“Whether super cyclone or very severe cyclone; area of about 150 km from the landfall will receive significant damage,” said an IMD official.

“The cyclone is set to hit near Sittwe as per our latest projection but it’s a dynamic system and we are keeping a close watch; Usually, more damage is caused on the right side of the landfall point; and that means Myanmar is likely to be more affected,” IMD Director-General Mrutyunjoy Mohapatra told this reporter.

On May 12, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said Cyclone Mocha’s landfall can happen “with maximum sustained winds of 180-190 km/h, the equivalent of category 3 on the Saffir Simpson scale” and “a storm surge of about 2.0-2.5 m above the astronomical tides is likely to inundate low-lying areas of north Myanmar and the adjoining Southeast Bangladesh coasts”.

“It’s a very dangerous cyclone and ... it’s associated with violent winds,” said WMO’s Clare Nullis in Geneva during a press briefing.

She added: “There will be major impacts both ahead and after landfall for potentially hundreds of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable people”.

The WMP communique also reminded that “Cox’s Bazaar is home to nearly one million Rohingya refugees — the world’s largest camp”.

“Heavy rainfall is forecast, with the possible risk of floods, flash floods and landslides and there will be major impacts both ahead and after landfall for potentially hundreds of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable people, once more underlining the importance of the UN’s Early Warnings for All initiative” added WMO.

It also reminded that the state of Rakhine in neighbouring Myanmar has about six million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

“This cyclone impact area, both in Cox’s Bazaar and Rakhine, is low-lying and highly prone to flooding. Heavy rains and strong winds are later expected to hit inland communities in the Northwest which are also prone to landslides and flooding,” said WMO.

Several international agencies UN High Commissioner for Refugees, International Organization for Migration, World Health Organization and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are making contingency plans and mobilizing community preparedness, based on the forecasts.

Disaster looms large

Locals confirmed on May 12 that non-profits and the local administration have undertaking awareness programmes on countering the cyclone, and responding after that.

However, awareness is hardly going to help as the area neither has the infrastructure nor the preparation to fight a potential crisis of such a scale.

Most people in the area do not know that a disaster of such a magnitude would likely to hit them soon, forget about preparation, a Rohingya migrant told this reporter on May 11 night.

Most Rohingyas live in makeshift shanties made of tarpaulin, bamboo, polythene and similar material under appalling conditions.

“Most Rohingyas are uneducated. Moreover, the internet network here is quite poor. Hence, most of them do not know that such a devastating cyclone is likely to hit them soon. I have asked some of my students today about the cyclone and they had no idea,” said Muhammad Shobbir, a Rohingya migrant staying in Balukhali camp near Cox’s Bazar and teaching students privately.

Balukhali camp has more than 500,000 resident refugees.

“The entire population is sitting on a bomb and I really cannot fathom what is in store for us after May 12 if a cyclone of such high magnitude actually hits us. I do not know but many in Bangladesh are talking about a possible super cyclone,” said Shobbir.

“Even makeshift house is an understatement and 90 per cent of the people live under tripol (tarpaulin) and the rest have bera (a bamboo structure with tin and polythene). These will simply blow away and refugees have hardly any place to escape,” a worker of a non-profit working within one of the largest Rohingya camps in the area told this reporter on May 12 evening.  

The middle-aged worker, not willing to disclose his name and organisation, clarified over phone that though there is no government cyclone shelter in the area, over 400 such shelters have been set up by several non-profits.

But those can hardly accommodate five per cent of the Rohingya population from 33 camps. However, a government official claimed that close to 50 per cent people can be accommodated in about 575 storm shelters.

“Officially, there are about one million Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh but actual number is more,” said the non-profit worker.

He added that though there has been a demand for a long time for constructing semi-permanent dwelling structures in the area, the administration does not seem to be willing to invest, as they are keener on repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar, particularly with government-to-government discussions initiated on the issue.   

Dhaka admits that the Rohingyas are sitting ducks as they are literally in the path of the storm’s eye.

“If the storm crosses Teknaf with very high wind speed, we fear that the temporary shelters will be damaged,” said Enamur Rahman, state minister for disaster management and relief in Bangladesh recently.

The administration is also not ruling out the possibility of flash floods or landslides triggered by heavy rains under the influence of Mocha.

“Landslides may also put the lives of a huge number of refugees at risk. Fear has already spread among people in the risky hills; only God can save these hapless people,” said another local worker talking from a camp.

“If the shelters are blown away by the storm, the refugees may take shelter in the schools near the camps. We’ve requested the district administration to accommodate people in schools, if required,” Muhammad Shaheen Imran, head of Cox’s Bazar district administration told local media on May 11.

Incidentally, on May 11, the Refugee Commissioner met representatives of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), WFP (World Food Programme), police, Border Guards Bangladesh and also the army to work out a Mocha counter strategy.

According to the local administration, about 3,300 volunteers in the 33 refugee camps are expected to work in disaster management in sync with the government and non-government organisations.

But even the non-profits working in the area feel that this is peanuts – about 3 volunteers per 1,000 refugees – especially with the fact that most are hardly trained to combat such a disaster.

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