How one architect transformed education in flood-ravaged Bangladesh through 'floating schools'

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In Bangladesh, roughly one-third of the country, much of which sits only a meter above sea level, goes underwater during monsoon season from June to October.

How one architect transformed education in flood-ravaged Bangladesh through 'floating schools'

In those months, roads become inaccessible, crops and schoolhouses are destroyed and commerce stalls. Millions of Bangladeshis are forced to migrate to larger cities to feed their families.

Children suffer acutely during monsoon season. As sea levels rise and seasonal rains become more frequent and intense (scientists expect that 10 to 20 percent of Bangladesh will be submerged by seawater by 2030), local families are often unable — or unwilling — to send their children to school. When flooding decimates the family's food supply or puts one parent out of a job, children are often asked to stay home to work or farm.

Growing up in rural Northwest Bangladesh, Mohammed Rezwan witnessed decades of increasingly violent weather events, including dozens of monsoons and a 1991 cyclone that killed 138,000 people. Though his family owned a small transportation boat that allowed him to attend some classes during rain season, Rezwan's friends and relatives weren't so lucky. During monsoon season, he says, they couldn't attend school, leaving many of them deprived of an elementary education.

“It was frustrating and difficult for me to accept this situation,” he says.

In 1998, after graduating with a degree in architecture from a university in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, Rezwan returned to the small village where he grew up and set out to devise a solution to the floods destroying Bangladesh's education.

“Architects build houses or buildings for those who have the ability to construct them, but why can’t architecture do wonderful things for poorer people in their communities? I wanted to do something for the communities where I grew up,” he says.

'A lonely enterprise'
Rezwan’s idea was to flood-proof education by designing and building a fleet of floating schools that could be replicated in other developing countries ravaged by floods. The same year he graduated, Rezwan embarked on his plan, called Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, with just $500 and a laptop.

For the next four years, he balanced building his first school boat with attracting international fundraisers and local supporters. After emailing hundreds of organizations, Rezwan received a $3,000 grant from the Global Fund for Children in 2003 that allowed him to build and demonstrate the idea to local families.

“It was a lonely enterprise at that point,” Rezwan says.

When he built Shidhulai’s first ship, Rezwan aimed to ensure the boat would remain a local project, in both form and function. He would source wood from native shala trees and metal from local vendors, and hire village residents to convert flat-bottomed river boats into 55-foot long school boats held together by metal beams and waterproof roof and floors made from shala — all of which would be monsoon-resistant.

Because so many Bangladeshi children work during the day, Shidhulai installed solar panels on the boat’s roof so it would have electricity in the evening for night students.

"I wanted it to have a cultural-friendly design that helps people create ownership into project," Rezwan says. "The boats are built with local knowledge and villagers provide the labor and materials."

School's in session
Each day, the Shidhulai school starts out as a water taxi, picking up students at a group of stations and docking at the last stop, where the 30 or so pupils begin their school day on the boat.

In addition to attending three primary education classes, Shidhulai students also learn about protecting the environment and conserving water and energy.

"We want children to share this with their community," Rezwan says. "We want children to share this with their community," Rezwan says.

To complement what the students learn in class, Shidhulai gives them access to hundreds of books, electronic resources and a laptop with Internet that’s powered by solar energy.

At home, Shidhulai rewards high-performing students with a free rechargeable lantern made from recycled kerosene lantern parts. Children use the light to study at night while their mothers knit, which allows them to earn additional income and save money on kerosene. When the lamp's battery runs out, children can recharge it on the school boats.

Rezwan says part of Shidhulai's mission is to help Bangladeshi families — 32 percent of which live below the poverty line — improve their living conditions and provide better futures for their children. In addition to floating schools, the organization now also runs maritime health clinics, libraries and vocational and agricultural training centers.

Providing year-round, accessible education to women is especially important in Bangladesh. Many Bangladeshi parents don't feel comfortable sending their girls to far-away schools, but the boats allow them to attend floating schools near their villages, Rezwan says.

"We want to help members improve income, have access to light and improve communication to the outside world," he adds.

Scaling up
After the seed donation from the Global Fund for Children, Shidhulai received $100,000 from the Levi Strauss Foundation and $1 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped the organization greatly expand its fleet and objectives.

In recent years, for example, Shidhulai added two-tiered ships to its fleet. In the morning and afternoon, students learn and use the library below the ship's deck while their parents hear about sustainable farming and new agricultural techniques by guest scientists on the upper deck. Educators teach adults how to grow flood-resistant rice and sugarcane, which helps families produce enough food to stay in their villages during flood season when many are forced to flee to cities.

"Many people in Bangladesh only get one crop per year," Rezwan says. "If the flood stays longer, it means they can’t grow that crop."

With more funds, Shidhulai has been able to expand its scope and help families — many of whom are landless — eat and earn money during rain season when crops are underwater. It's done this by engineering "floating farms" — buoyant pastures that contain vegetable gardens, a chicken coop and a fish enclosure, all of which can be raised for sustenance or sale.

"We're helping people adapt to present situation with all of the new techniques like flooding farming that can help them in the future when they’ll get more flooding," Rezwan says. "They'll be able to grow crops and stay in their villages."

Today, Shidhulai has 111 vessels that serve more than 100,00 families every year, and Rezwan believes floating schools and education centers have the potential to help others whose upbringings and livelihoods have been uprooted by increasingly violent monsoons.

Already, he says, the Shidhulai model has been replicated in parts of the Philippines, Nigeria, Gambia, Pakistan, Vietnam and Cambodia.

"Our project is a solution to the problems of flooding and helps people prepare for bigger problems in future," he says. "It's simple and easy to replicate and has strong potential for scaling up within country or outside of it."

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