‘Hey friend, let’s go quickly’ — Bridge brings food closer to most vulnerable among Rohingya

‘There is a general appreciation that everyone is working on something meaningful.’

The World Food Programme (WFP) has deployed to Bangladesh a team of engineers, logisticians, emergency telecommunications specialists and other technical experts to ensure that much-needed food and nutrition assistance finds its way to those who need it the most. I took a closer look.

Bridge construction is not a task you might associate with food relief. But as Kutupalong makeshift camp in Bangladesh continues to grow with new arrivals of Rohingya refugees every day, some of the newer settlements are separated from the original camp by the river. This means that what could be a walk of a few hundred metres to a food-distribution point becomes a kilometres-long trek in difficult conditions.

Kutupalong camp is one of the largest and fastest growing refugee camps in the world. Currently 430,000 people live in the settlement, and the figure is projected to rise to 700,000. Photo: WFP/Saikat Mojumder.

Distance matters

It is crucial for refugees to be near distribution points, ideally no more than a few hundred metres. For many Kutupalong residents, however, reaching assistance means negotiating hilly terrain and crowded, narrow paths. The muddy ground is particularly treacherous during rain. Long distances are difficult to travel with loads, and can be dangerous for women, young children, or other vulnerable populations.

It is difficult for WFP to place and supply distribution points in these areas due to poor vehicle access. The Bangladesh army is building additional roads to allow better access to the camps, but these will not be ready for some time. WFP needed a fast, effective fix.

Many Kutupalong camp residents have to walk long distances on treacherous terrain to reach food assistance. Photo: WFP/Saikat Mojumder

“WFP is working really hard to help the most vulnerable: women, children the elderly and people with disabilities,” says Tristan Turner, WFP’s site engineer. “The protection and food security issues are very complex, and sadly there are still gaps and challenges. So we saw improved access and more distribution points as a simple solution to overcome complex problems and really strengthen the protection aspects of our response.”

Finding a solution

“We considered several options — ziplines for sending cargo, tractors, porter chains,” Tristan explains. His team decided a bridge was the best option. The design, constructed with gabion baskets, uses materials that can be locally sourced and quickly assembled on-site. Sturdy wire frames are filled with rocks and sand, and stacked directly on the riverbed by teams of workers like building blocks. Six of these blocks will be used to construct the span, which will be wide and sturdy enough to carry heavy vehicles.

Work in progress: Tristan oversees the construction of the bridge by a team of Bangladeshi and Rohingya workers. Photos: WFP/Saikat Mojumder

Contractors and workers from the host community and the Rohingya refugee population assemble and fill the baskets next to the planned site. Tristan supervises the work closely: the blocks are designed to allow the river to flow through, but improper construction might allow water to sluice away riverbed underlying the bridge. Once the gabions are completed, they can be placed in just a few days.

Working with the community

The process requires Tristan to be as adept with people as he is with engineering. The team of Bangladeshi and Rohingya workers on the bridge project carry heavy materials down difficult paths. He ensures WFP keeps on good terms with neighbours and community leaders near the project.

“There is a general appreciation that everyone is working on something meaningful, so they take a lot of pride in what they are doing,” Tristan says. “A lot of the work is done by hand, [carrying rocks] on the back of their necks, on the top of their heads — and determination. I have a lot of awe and admiration for the[se] people — they do work really hard.”

The Rohingya members of the construction team take great pride in their work. ‘I know I am making a huge contribution,’ says Sham Allam (right). Photos: WFP/Saikat Mojumder

Sham Allam, one of the Rohingya labourers, confirms this. “My home was burnt down in Myanmar and I escaped to Bangladesh. I work eight hours a day, carrying sand, bricks and rocks,” he explains. “I know I am making a huge contribution and helping people. At the moment it takes me more than one hour to get food.”

A good friend

The bridge, named Taratari chalo bandu, or “Hey friend, let’s go quickly” after a commonly-used Bangla phrase, will indeed be a good friend to the camp’s residents, making their hard lives a little bit easier.

The bridge will make it easier for people like Hajara Khatun and her daughter to reach food distribution points. Photo: WFP/Saikat Mojumder

“It takes me and my daughter one hour to walk to the distribution point,” says Hajara Khatun, who lives on the edge of the river in Kutupalong. With the new bridge, it will only take them ten minutes to collect their life-saving food.

The construction of the bridge — along with additional support to WFP for its response to the Rohingya refugee crisis — is made possible thanks to Australia (DFAT), Japan, the United Kingdom (DFID), and the United States (USAID).

You can give life-saving food to hungry children and families today. DONATE NOW.

Written by

Emergency Communications Specialist and former BBC Journalist.

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