Rohingya children shelter under tarpaulin as heavy rain falls at Kutupalong refugee camp.
Rohingya children shelter under tarpaulin as heavy rain falls at Kutupalong refugee camp. Paula Bronstein

Coffs engineer helps to save lives in Bangladesh

DAVID O'Meara grew up in Coffs Harbour and spent many years running an engineering consultancy there before turning his skills to international aid work.

Now in Cox's Bazar in southern Bangladesh, Mr O'Meara is working with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to help prepare refugee settlements for the upcoming monsoon. Around 850,000 Rohingya refugees, most of who have arrived since August last year, are crammed into around 10sqkm

"This is one of the more challenging missions I have experienced,” Mr O'Meara said.

"The Rohingya are in a dire situation - their plight is just tragic.”

The refugees fled extreme violence in Myanmar.

Mr O'Meara heads a team of engineers and architects, both international and Bangladeshi staff.

"We're working to improve infrastructure such as road networks, surface drainage, install street lights to improve safety and security at night, and improving canals to mitigate flooding,” he said.

"When the monsoon season arrives, June to August, we can expect 700 to 800ml of rain in a month, which is likely to result in significant landslides and flooding.”

Rohingya refugees wade through mud caused by monsoon rain to receive cash, food and clothing donations provided by private Bangladeshi donors at an aid distribution point in Kutupalong refugee camp, near Coxs Bazar.
Rohingya refugees wade through mud caused by monsoon rain to receive cash, food and clothing donations provided by private Bangladeshi donors at an aid distribution point in Kutupalong refugee camp, near Coxs Bazar. Roger Arnold

One of the major challenges, he said, is helping the refugees understand how to reduce the dangers of landslides as most are unfamiliar with the steep slopes they now live on.

"They strip the slopes of vegetation and cut out the stumps for firewood... they destabilise the land without knowing it.

"There's so many people here, on just a little patch of dirt. We're all working as hard as we can to prepare and make the settlements safe, but I'm not sure what the outcome will be.”

"As one colleague said, this can be likened to playing a football game where we know we are going to lose, we just need to only lose 2- nil, not 10 - nil.”

For this mission, his wife Fiona has joined him in Cox's Bazar. With a background in public health, she is working with a medical organisation. Mr O'Meara said her being there with him "gives life a little bit of normality at the end of the day”.

Mr O'Meara began working in short-term humanitarian missions around 15 years ago. Since his three daughters grew up - the youngest is now 21 - he has been spending more time in international aid work. For the past few years he has been back home at Sapphire Beach for just three months annually.

"We go back to Coffs Harbour and it's so nice and laid back. I spend a lot of time at the beach, and I think about staying, but then I want the challenge again. You need to do what you can - get out and help people in a tragic situation. There's so much need,” he said.

LEARN MORE

To prepare for the monsoon, UNHCR has airlifted 10,000 tents and 170,000 tarpaulins to Bangladesh. Over 10,000 refugees have been relocated to higher ground. More than 80,000 Monsoon Emergency Kits have been provided.

To donate to Australia for UNHCR's Rohingya appeal see here



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