The first rains of the year have flooded parts of the crowded Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, aid workers said Thursday, wreaking havoc and raising fears for nearly one million refugees ahead of the monsoon.
A brief but heavy downpour turned roads into quagmires in the world's largest refugee camp, hindering relief efforts and hinting at the danger ahead for the Rohingya who have sought refuge from violence in Myanmar.
"We are seeing areas of flooding in the camps and parts of some roads have been churned up," said Fiona MacGregor, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration in Cox's Bazar district where the camps are located.
Humanitarian agencies have been warning for months about the danger posed by the impending monsoon, due to start in June, to the welfare of refugees who live cheek by jowl in cramped tents on hillsides.
Landslides and floods caused by violent monsoon storms can be deadly in southeast Bangladesh, which is also prone to powerful cyclones.
Last season, heavy rain triggered mud slips in Cox's Bazar and nearby Chittagong Hill Tracts, killing at least 170 people. More than 100 died in landslides in the region in 2012, and two years earlier heavy downpours killed around 50.
Aid agencies have been reinforcing tents with concrete and sandbags in anticipation of the monsoon.
Save the Children spokeswoman Daphnee Cook said Thursday's rain had already "wreaked havoc" but the monsoon proper posed a much greater threat.
"If a big storm hits the camps, it would be nothing short of disastrous," she said.
There are fears heavy flooding could also overflow latrines and spread disease in the close confines of the camps, where around 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have arrived from Myanmar since August.
Many of the hillsides were cleared of trees to make way for shelters, leaving the land highly unstable.
Nurul Haq, a Rohingya refugee, said the brief downpour had turned paths through the camps "into long and continuous puddles of thick mud".
The UN says about 150,000 refugees are extremely vulnerable this rainy season and Bangladesh's refugee commissioner has said that 100,000 refugees would be shifted to safer ground.
Bangladesh has said it would also start relocating another 100,000 Rohingya to a desolate island off its southern coast in June, despite warnings the site is prone to violent weather.