There are those who will argue that this story reeks like a bowel movement but someone has to do it. And so do the roughly 900,000 Rohingya refugees stuck in camps in Bangladesh, every day.

On February 1, aid agency OXFAM and UNHCR opened the Centralized Fecal Sludge Management Plant (CFSMP) at Bangladesh’s Kutupalong refugee camp, the largest such fecal waste plant in any refugee camp on the planet.

Kutupalong, which at last count houses some 550,000 Rohingya refugees, is the largest of multiple separate camps spread out along the narrow strip of land running south from Cox’s Bazar, bordered by Myanmar to the east and the Bay of Bengal on the west.

Do the math; OXFAM has. With an estimated four hundred grams per person per day, the resultant sludge (human waste mixed with water) is estimated at around two liters a day per person.

All in all, that’s about 1.8 million liters of infectious human waste every 24 hours deposited somewhere in Bangladesh’s 39 camps, now home to an estimated 900,000 refugees.

Rohingya refugees react as aid is distributed in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton
Rohingya refugees react as aid is distributed in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

When around 700,000 Rohingya fled military “clearance operations” in Myanmar beginning in August 2017, it didn’t take long for a humanitarian crisis to explode. Refugees were living in the open, and defecating there too.

Over the next year, local and foreign aid agencies built around 49,000 latrines. But with time, these soon became insufficient as they quickly filled up. Disposing of all the waste proved to be a bilious headache of epic proportions.

Tube wells built to provide drinking water also proved troublesome, some becoming infected with waste. Many Rohingya women, preferring a bit of privacy, were often afraid to use the toilets, especially at night.

Thousands of women have been harassed in the dark, including cases of rape, forcing many of them to relieve themselves inside their makeshift bamboo huts, complicating health issues even further.

In 2018, aid agencies estimated there were at least 200,000 cases of infectious diarrhea among the refugee population. Some probably died as a result but total figures on deaths in the camps are not, at least publicly, available.

A makeshift graveyard at the the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, February 2019. Photo: Michael Hayes

There are cemeteries scattered about the camps, with roughly hewn headstones and flimsy rattan enclosures marking the lives of those who died far from home.

At Madhurchara graveyard, located near Camp 6, Rohingya block leader Helal Uddin, 28, said, “People in Camps 1, 2, 5 and 6 use this graveyard. We get one to three bodies every day. So far we already buried almost 800 people.”

Helal said the site was prone to landslides and needed a guide wall to prevent graves from getting washed away during the rainy season.

Working with the Bangladeshi Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner’s Office (RRRC) in Cox’s Bazar, OXFAM and UNHCR built the CSFMP in just over seven months at a cost of US$400,000. The RRRC sorted out acquiring the land for the waste facility.

The plant is simple in design, and described by its builders as “eco-friendly.” Salahuddin Ahmmed, OXFAM’s team leader at the site, says the fecal sludge comes by truck, with 10,000 liters per delivery and about 60,000 liters arriving every day.

Workers put finishing touches on the Kutupalong refugee camp‘s waste management plant, February 2019. Photo: Michael Hayes

Overall, the plant can handle the waste of 150,000 refugees a day. Two “covered lagoons” have been built. “It takes four months to fill one lagoon,” says Ahmmed. “Ninety-seven percent is liquid,” he adds, “with the rest solids.”

“All the waste is treated using a natural process, with gravel and sunlight,” explains Ahmmed. “The lagoon cover produces heat to eliminate pathogens.” Coconut fiber filters also help to process the waste.

Over time, remaining sludge is moved to secondary holding tanks where it is “fully decontaminated” and can later be safely removed.

While the plant is currently functional, an additional secondary storage tank was under construction on February 12 when this reporter visited. Twenty-five Rohingya refugees, hired at 400 taka a day (about US$5), had been employed to dig the extra pit.

Once all work is completed, it will take only three people to run the facility: plant operator Ariful Islam, 31, and chief mechanic Nurul Hoque, 60, are assisting Ahmmed.

Kutupalong refugee camp‘s makeshift latrines seen in blue plastic-walled huts, February 2019. Photo: Michael Hayes

OXFAM says the plant is designed to last at least 20 years. There is also room to build two more lagoons. Similar fecal sludge plants are being considered for construction in other camps.

The larger issue at hand is when, if ever, the refugees will return to Myanmar. All Bangladeshi, United Nations and foreign aid agencies include language in their press releases and other official documents stating that the goal is to “repatriate” the refugees.

Privately, many aid workers shake their heads, speculating that the Rohingya will be in the camps “for a very long time.”

OXFAM team leader Ahmmed, at least for the moment, is upbeat, noting that his friends teasingly call him the “king of shit.”

But he doesn’t mind. “I feel proud,” he said with a smile. “This is more critical than water management. I’m saving lives, and that is important.” He concluded with a chuckle, noting the lack of any offensive aroma at the plant: “And look,” he said, “it doesn’t stink either.”