Myanmar: COVID-19 and hygiene awareness in remote areas

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During WASH sessions, DRC trainers advocate inclusive access to basic services for children with disability, Koe Na Win IDP Camp in Mrauk U Township © DRC

DRC’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programmes in remote areas and camps for internally displaced people in Rakhine State help reduce disease transmission and build resilience among isolated and vulnerable communities to cope with COVID-19 risks.

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, living in isolation, poverty and uncertainty, with lack of access to protection, basic services, and infrastructure. The limited mobility is caused by continuous conflict and as consequences of decades of civil war and ethnic strives, and movement restrictions imposed by local authorities on stateless and ethnic minority groups. More recently, the general situation and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar is severely aggravated and seen to escalate countrywide since the military took power in February 2021.

COVID-19: DRC provides emergency aid and support people in need

It is in this context, and with continued 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 cope with the health crisis among vulnerable communities in areas with little or no public services, 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 safe drinking water for domestic purposes according to international standards, as well as functional disposal systems and access to hygiene items and community-tailored messages, that all together help enabling health seeking behavior for communities vulnerable to health- and hygiene-related risks.

DRC has built a network of trained incentive workers to help coordinate and implement activities directly with communities. This includes a wide range of activities covering hygiene kit distribution, hygiene promotion messaging, pond renovation and fencing construction, establishing water supply systems, water quality testing, latrine construction, latrine and bathroom maintenance, and solid waste management.

WASH in Rakhine IDP camps

Rakhine State is home to an estimated 3.2 million (2014 census) out of the country’s 51.48 million, 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 exodus of people seeking protection in 2017 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, concentrated in Rakhine with an estimated one million Rohingya living there.

Ethnic strife and conflict forces families to leave their home

Access to basic services and WASH programmes delivered by DRC and other NGOs, are critical to vulnerable populations, particularly in the camps hosting internally displaced in Rakhine and across Myanmar where waves of displacement continue. Ethnic strife and conflict have forced thousands of individuals, families and entire communities to leave their homes and relocate in search of other and safer areas.

Years on, they are still there in what has turned into established and confined camps for internally displaced, and with new generations born into what was intended as interim settlements. Most of the internally displaced in this state are Rohingya who have limited prospects of returning to the homes they once fled from, and limited freedom of movement to move in and out of the camps.

Latrines have been built by DRC in IDP camps in Rakhine to offer safe and 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 contributes to nutrition diversification.

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.

Working in and around the camps for displaced

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 in 10 camps for internally displaced and five villages in and 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 Development for Foreign Aid and Trade (DFAT).