21 December 2012
Tens of thousands of people displaced by conflict in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state and living in temporary camps have inadequate sanitation, poor hygiene conditions and limited access to safe water, increasing health risks to people in and near the sites.
Vulnerable groups, including children, are at greatest risk of diseases like diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases. Out of the estimated 115,000 internally displaced people in Rakhine, about 85,000 are currently housed in and around Sittwe. About 5 per cent of them, predominantly ethic Rakhines, live in urban sites, while 95 per cent — mostly Rohingyas – are in rural sites.
“In spite of the progress made so far in providing humanitarian support for the people of Rakhine state, much more needs to be done, especially in rural areas, to protect children and their families from illnesses that result from unsafe water and a lack of adequate sanitation,” said Bertrand Bainvel, the UNICEF Representative in Myanmar.
While access and coverage of water and sanitation for people in camps in urban areas has improved, rural sites have much bigger numbers of internally displaced people and are in less accessible locations. A lack of space and congested living environments mean they have worse latrines and poorer hygiene. Surveys showed just over half of all displaced people have access to what is considered safe water. About 70 per cent have access to some sanitation and 60 per cent have access to basic sanitary supplies.
Drainage and solid waste disposal are major challenges in both urban and rural sites, as the use of temporary accommodation is prolonged and the rainy season is looming.
According to rapid surveys earlier this year, water for domestic uses – washing and cleaning – is available, yet access to safe drinking water is limited. The surveys found that the large majority of internally displaced did not boil their water because of a lack of firewood and awareness about hygiene issues. Nearly 70 per cent of people did not have adequate water storage capacities or suitable containers.
Ground water lifted through hand pumps and rainwater stored in tanks serve as sources of drinking water for most of the displaced.
Some locations, including those with displaced who have arrived since October, do not have ground water sources, and stored rainwater supplies are expected to run out by late January 2013. The rainy season does not set in until May and there are no easy solutions to water shortages. Desalination and transportation of water are expensive and labour-intensive. Ensuring regular provision of alternative sources of drinking water will be a significant challenge unless people move back to their places of origin.
The sanitation situation also poses challenges. Temporary pit latrines are being used by large numbers of people and fill up rapidly – roughly every three months – without drainage and proper waste disposal. Space constraints, high costs and complex logistics make it impossible to relocate the latrines in many sites. About 35 per cent of people currently practice open defecation – a practice that predates the current conflict. Rakhine state traditionally has high rates of open defecation compared to other parts of Myanmar. Once the rains start, overflow from pit latrines combined with flooding in areas where open defecation is normal could create intolerable environmental pollution and the spread of water and sanitation-related diseases. The absence of proper lighting in displaced sites raises security concerns and dignity issues for people, particularly women and children, who are obliged to use latrines in the evenings or at night.
To date, UNICEF and its water, sanitation, and hygiene sector (WASH) partners focused on distributing basic hygiene items, providing latrines and bathing areas, operating safe solid waste disposal and drainage systems, constructing safe water supplies, and hygiene promotion.
In Sittwe, WASH partners provide support in sites for the displaced, and increased access is resulting in steady improvements in the water and sanitation situation. About 60 per cent of displaced have received hygiene kits with basic items, such as bath and laundry soap, buckets, nail clippers and sanitary napkins.
UNICEF is committed to supporting the health, education, protection rights and prospects of all children in Rakhine State and across Myanmar, based on its humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality. UNICEF joins calls for a rapid resolution of the conflict and long-term social investment in Rakhine State.