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Aid workers are in a race against time to stop the rapid spread of disease as thousands of Rohingya people arrive in Bangladesh every day. Oxfam warned that an outbreak of cholera would devastate the camps where hundreds of thousands of people are without safe water, shelter or enough food to eat.
More than 50,000 newly arrived Rohingya refugees have been hit by diarrhea, pneumonia, skin disease and acute malnutrition as aid agencies struggle to meet the needs of more than half a million people who have arrived from neighboring Myanmar since August.
Oxfam engineers are working through torrential rain and floods to install water pumps and tanks, latrines and emergency shelters and have so far provided help to 180,000 people in the over-crowded, ill-equipped camps and ad-hoc settlements of Cox's Bazar.
According to the Cox's Bazar Civil Surgeon, the number of patients seeking treatment is on the rise. Safe water and food and clean toilets are critical to preventing the outbreak of cholera and many other illnesses that have affected the refugees. Currently, the camps are short of 25,000 toilets, increasing the risk of disease.
Enamul Huque, an Oxfam water and sanitation engineer who has worked for more than 25 years building water systems in the world's biggest refugees camps - including Zaatari, Bidi Bidi and Dadaab - says the crisis is one of the fastest population movements he has ever experienced.
Huque said: "With more than half a million people arrived in Bangladesh in less than six weeks, we are working as hard as we can to avert a possible cholera outbreak. Providing people here with lifesaving water and sanitation has been a huge challenge, especially along the Naff peninsula where torrential rains have helped to turn the mud tracks over hilly terrain into clay quagmires.”
The latest shipment of aid dispatched from Oxfam's UK warehouse in Bicester has provided 15 tons of water pumps, water tanks, material for construction of emergency latrines, and shelter fittings to provide water to another 35,000 people.
Another two shipments already planned will help Oxfam to reach 200,000 refugees. While there is a total need of 58 million liters of clean water each day, the existing supply in and around the encampments is providing less than a liter of water per person daily - insufficient to meet even the basic needs.
Oxfam has been busy constructing toilets over the last few weeks. Huque said: “The groundwater in this region is depleting faster than it used to. We are now installing shallow tube wells and surface water treatment plants. We have also started installing bio-fill latrines as the emergency toilets that we provided are being filled up very fast.”
In coordination with its partners, Oxfam has also been distributing emergency food materials including flattened rice, sugar, high-energy biscuits, as well as hygiene materials including laundry and toilet soap to over 100,000 people.
One newly arrived woman told Oxfam about her journey: "I came to Bangladesh about a month ago with my family. I walked for nine days to reach the camps. For three weeks I didn't have clean water or soap to have a shower or even to wash my hands. Yesterday, we got a toilet and a tube well, and today we got soap and some food. I am happy, for the first time in weeks I can finally wash my clothes."