Water for the Rohingya: A Looming Humanitarian Crisis

by Sarah Straubinger

Water is of the utmost importance in Burma currently. Nationwide droughts and delayed monsoons have created a near water crisis for communities across Burma. As widespread drought continues to worsen in Burma, the access to clean and safe water becomes increasingly scant. Access to water is limited in average working class communities, while safe water appears to be in plentiful supply for the small political elite in Rangoon. The biggest threat to clean and safe water is among the Rohingya in Rakhine.

Water shortages in Burmese villages are becoming increasingly worse during a prolonged dry season. Few restrictions on water usage and consumption in earlier decades has exploited water resources, and exacerbated the current drought. No assistance has been offered by the government to alleviate the problem. Recently, private Burmese donors issued limited water aid to Burmese communities in the most affected areas. Villagers are forced to travel three miles on average to receive a maximum of two buckets of water per person, per day. However, this water aid does not apply to Rohingya communities.

The Rohingya are a religious and linguistic minority from western Burma. According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Strict definitions in the Burmese constitution do not include the Rohingya among indigenous groups qualifying for citizenship, formally marking this group as alien to Burma.

There are 800,000 Rohingya living in Burma today, the vast majority of which live in the state of Rahkine, in Western Burma. While the Rohingya make up a good portion of the state’s population, the majority living in the state are ethnic Buddhist Rakhine. Historically, the Rakhine majority has resented the presence of Rohingyas, who they view as Muslim people from another country, despite the fact that the Rohingya are widely believed to be from Rakhine. There is widespread public hostility toward the Rohingya in Burma.

While hostility toward the Rohingya has been commonplace for generations, tensions came to a boiling point in 2012 when the Rohingya were held accountable for the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman, sparking a chain of deadly events. Violence escalated as Muslims and Buddhists attacked each other, ultimately leaving almost 650 Rohingya dead and displacing another 115,000.

While thousands of Rohingya fled Burma for Thailand and Bangladesh, more than 100,000 Rohingya were relocated in Burma in Internally Displaced Persons camps. While intended to be temporary, overcrowding and security issues continue to be problems and living conditions continue to worsen. According to one statistic, 60 percent of these IDP camps lack access to sufficient drinking water, while 70 percent lack access to adequate sanitation. Rohingya in IDP camps receive the majority of their food and water from foreign aid workers, because they are not provided access to these by the state.

As marginalization toward the Rohingya has continued, violence has continued to escalate. In March, violent attacks against aid workers working with Rohingya forced these agencies out of the country and the Burmese government formally suspended Doctors Without Borders from working in Rakhine. While a high-level UN mission was deployed to Burma to discuss strategies with the Burmese government, no solution has been provided as a food and water crisis continues to loom.

Without the immediate and full restoration of an enabling and secure environment to re-establish essential and life-saving assistance provided by aid agencies, the lives of thousands of Rohingya will be at even greater risk. While Burma has vowed to protect aid workers in country, the government has done essentially nothing to reestablish these humanitarian agencies in Rohingya communities, where aid is needed most.

The Burmese government and international aid agencies should be held accountable for the plight of Rohingya in IDP camps being denied a human right. As environmental circumstances stress the availability of water nation-wide in Burma, water becomes even scarcer for the Rohingya. This is not merely a public health crisis, but a humanitarian one.