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How BIM helped in Rohingya rehabilitation

UNHCR was racing against time to build a settlement camp for refugees in Bangladesh when the Rohingya crisis blew up. The team had to settle 600,000 people in six months in a flood-prone, unstable area. That’s where Autodesk’s site planning software came in handy. By Mahashreveta Choudhary

Way back in 1969, when Mick Jagger wrote this opening song for the Rolling Stones album Let it Bleed, he had his eyes on the Vietnam war. He couldn’t have known that his lyrics would go on to depict the lives of the Rohingyas — the homeless, stateless people in the neighboring Myanmar — half a century later.

In the August of 2017, after violence erupted in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, entire villages were burned to the ground, children were shot and women were sexually assaulted. Nearly 600,000 Rohingya are said to have fled the country within the first six months, crossing over to the neighboring Bangladesh and settling there as refugees in makeshift camps. Back then, Bangladesh, which is prone to floods and other climatic extremities, had its own set of problems — from extreme poverty to radicalism. It was almost a state of emergency for the island nation when the refugees first arrived.

It was then that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) stepped in and took the challenge head on. To make sure that the refugees had access to shelter, clean water and sanitation, UNHCR needed to quickly build a huge settlement — the largest of its kind in the world. “Imagine building a city for 600,000 people in less than six months! That was a Level 3 crisis for UNHCR, and this meant we had to put all possible efforts to respond to the need of Rohingya refugees as soon as possible. The work was tremendous, and the time was very less,” Phoebe Goodwin, UNHCR’s Lead Site Architect, narrates in a video.

Race against time

The site allotted for the settlement camps was not flat and faced extreme flood conditions in the monsoons.  The UNHCR team approached the government for approval to modify the landscape. They brought in machinery for heavy earthwork and eventually built a bigger track of flat land for safe shelters.

But first, the UNHCR team needed to understand risk areas. For example, where the flooding happens, what is the natural drainage flow, which are the settlement aspects that can be shifted to a higher ground, where they can lay roads, what kind of diversions for flood water they can create. These were very basic, but critical issues before the team.
Goodwin highlights other challenges that she had in front of her: “Rohingyas are Muslims, and it was important to understand their cultural preferences. Also, due to the sudden influx, people had initially built their shelters wherever they found space. So, we also had the issue of relocation. The risk of overcrowding was another issue.”

The UNHCR team didn’t even have the time to prepare a proper proposal for the project. Also, often in refugee settlement context, operations are dynamic and fluid, and changes are made as per the situation on the ground. So, no advanced site planning you produce becomes a concrete blueprint. The team needed some technology that could help it generate plans rapidly and dynamically.

Life in a camp: While life is not all rosy for the Rohingyas at the Cox Bazar camp in Bangladesh, they are away from the violence and have a roof on their head. (Extreme right) Phoebe Goodwin, Lead Site Architect, UNHCR, who led the settlement project


Enter Autodesk. “UNHCR approached us articulating the need for a dynamic software that could serve their needs. We suggested Civil 3D software,” Priya Balijepalli, Sustainability Success Manager at Autodesk, tells Geospatial World.

UNHCR is part of the Autodesk Tech Impact Program, which aims to provide social impact software for non-profits and welfare organizations using design solutions for creating climate-resilient communities. The engagement entails not just the software license but also understanding the specific project, plans and priorities, and training into making the team comfortable in its use. “We roped our internal technical team and internal channel partner Microdesk to add momentum to the work by engaging with them on technical training,” says Balijepalli.

Senior Microdesk consultants travelled to Geneva to work with the UNHCR team, training them to use Autodesk software in design and construction of these elements. A total of 50 site planners of UNHCR were trained on AutoCAD Civil 3D in just a week.

What is Civil 3D

Civil 3D is an engineering software application used by civil engineers and other professionals to plan, design, and manage civil engineering projects. These projects fall under the three main categories of land development, water, and transportation and can include construction area development, road engineering, river development, port construction, canals, dams, embankments, and many others. Civil 3D allows to create three-dimensional (3D) models of land, water, or transportation features while maintaining dynamic relationships to source data such as grading objects, breaklines, contours, and corridors. As an industry-leading Building Information Modelling (BIM) solution, Civil 3D is well known in the civil engineering community and is widely used on a variety of infrastructure projects both large and small. Using Civil 3D, engineers can create an existing ground surface. Its accurate and dynamic drafting tools make it the tool of choice for engineers and designers using third-party and spreadsheet-based hydraulic and hydrologic modelling solutions.

How it helped

The training program was a huge help for the team — now they could visualize the requirements at the site and how to finish the work in the given deadline. For instance, once they completed the watershed analysis of the settlement, they were able to figure out the natural water drainage in the site, the high flood plain areas and how the water will flow during the monsoon season. Overlaying this data on the existing settlement site also helped them see which part of the settlement area was under high risk and which could submerge, the area prone to landslides etc.

“Civil 3D is great because on top of actual site planning, we were able to take couture maps, use the tools to generate analysis, be it watershed or flooding, and also combine it with 3D modelling in Infraworks to improve on site planning and site selection,” says Goodwin. “Without Civil 3D, I don’t think this project would have met its deadline. The degree of professionalism it adds along with accuracy and speed of implementation and execution was incredible.”

The process was done by amalgamation of GIS data with the site data.  As per Balijepalli, the interesting part of having GIS data is that one can have natural topography in solution. “When you use this data as baseline data and run an analysis, it helps to understand the actual scenario of the place.”

In the Rohingya site planning, this amalgamation helped to understand where rain falls and how it flows, where does it get collected. This particular information was the base of the entire planning. This data can be overlaid with already existing campsites and it helps site planners to know that certain aspect of community settlement. “In certain areas, you will get to see that settlements are in low line area and you get to know that at this particular place the water can get collected, which means that place is prone to get submerged,” adds Balijepalli.

To further complicate the problem, the settlement area is close to Cox Bazar, a place right next to a natural reserve and home of one of the most endangered species of Asian elephants. Every year migratory path of elephant cuts through the settlement site. Goodwin’s team overcame this problem also by overlaying a CAD file of elephant movement on the top of the site plan to identify the high-risk areas so that the problem could be dealt with.

Tech for good

The number of Rohingya refugees staying at the settlement has grown rapidly in the past couple of years. While the Bangladeshi government continues to insist that the nearly 1 million refugees stuffed into various camps are just temporary, there are few signs that they will leave anytime soon. Preparing land for new homes, growing their own crops and enrolling their children in religious schools, the Rohingyas seem to be clearly looking at a longer stay. According to media reports, there are even playgrounds popping up in some places, with solid metal slides and swing sets.

Further, along the edge of the largest camp, hundreds of men and women with shovels and wicker baskets are tirelessly working on turning a barren hill into a parking lot-sized plateau. The land will eventually hold new and stronger shelters that will lessen the burden of the existing overcrowded camps.
Goodwin, who was in Bangladesh for over six months when the crisis was at its peak, says, “A shelter is a tangible, physical core component of protection. And a shelter just doesn’t come out of thin air.”
“I am an architect and I advise on site planning and shelter design. I like being an architect because I know there is a social element associated with it either through humanitarian or development work. To see the laughter and joy on people’s faces is incredibly rewarding,” she adds.

The settlement of the Rohingya community is one of its kind which used tech for good. There are more than 65 million refugees across the globe who are in dire need of settlement. And, here technology can help in mass  settlement in lesser time period.

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