Calgary geophysicist works against time to find water for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

A Calgary geophysicist working with a team of experts to find underground water for thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled violence in Myanmar to overcrowded camps in Bangladesh says they are making good progress.

'A month from now, 2 months at the most, they'll be completely dry,' Paul Bauman says of existing reservoirs

The Calgary team will spend another week in Bangladesh trying to find water for thousands of refugees. (Paul Bauman Geophysics)

A Calgary geophysicist is working with a team of experts to find underground water for thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who fled to overcrowded camps in Bangladesh.

Nearly 600,000 members of the minority group have fled from Myanmar's western Rakhine state to Bangladesh since Aug. 25, a UN Refugee Agency report says. The people are trying to escape a military offensive that the United Nations says amounts to ethnic cleansing.

The most recent influx of people is expected to quickly exhaust the existing water supply at makeshift refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, near Teknaf, Bangladesh. That's where Paul Bauman, a geophysicist with WorleyParsons Ltd., and his four colleagues are focusing their search.

"It's going really well," Bauman told the Calgary Eyeopener on Monday. "We've found a number of targets."

The community in the refugee camp has been asking for clean water wells before other services, Paul Bauman says. (Paul Bauman Geophysics)

Bauman and his team are using a technique called electrical resistivity tomography, which produces images of subsurface structures, in their search for aquifers.

"Think of like seismic survey, where we're laying lots of cable out through the streets, through the market, between villages and imaging what's in the subsurface," he said.

"So literally we just have to weave our way through these camps."

The team has about 1.5 kilometres of cable laid out at any given time.

Team members Alastair McClymont and Eric Johnson move cable spools. (Paul Bauman Geophysics)

Four local students from a local polytechnic college are helping the team, while the drivers do double duty as translators, helping to explain to farmers and villagers what the scientists are trying to do.

The need for more water wells is getting urgent as the dry season sets in and the few existing reservoirs evaporate, Bauman said.

"A month from now, two months at the most, they'll be completely dry," he said.

"People are walking up to us and saying more than latrines and schools and health clinics and food, they need water."

Cable to help build the wells was transported by bike. (Paul Bauman Geophysics/Facebook)

Bauman said conditions at the camps are desperately bad, with flimsy shelters constructed out of bamboo and plastic sheets.

"There's not enough shelters, there's not enough space, there's not nearly enough latrines, the latrines aren't nearly big enough. Well-point access to water is very limited," he said.

"And we kind of have to navigate our way through all of that to get our work done. So, it's challenging, for sure.

Nearly 600,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority group have fled Myanmar to overcrowded camps in Bangladesh. (Paul Bauman Geophysics)

Bauman and his team will spend about another week in the area finding more locations for wells, and then UN agencies such as the UNHCR and UNICEF will send in teams to drill at those sites.

"We're confident they're going to get water; we just don't know how much. Depending on the results, we might or might not come back," he said.

"We're hoping we'll have enough to fulfil their needs."

With files from Caroline Wagner and the Calgary Eyeopener