One man's solution for flood-prone areas started with floating schools

The risks of climate change are a new reality to many Americans in flooded New York and New Jersey coastal towns as residents begin to clean up their sodden wreckage, but in Bangladesh, people are learning how to live with what some scientists call the "new normal."

The country, a low-lying plain crisscrossed with more than 800 rivers and a maritime southern boundary, is gradually finding ways to adapt to monsoon floods that submerge houses and schools and wash away roads. As its weather warms, intense cyclones are more frequent visitors and rising seas have a greater appetite for swallowing land.

Mohammed Rezwan has decided not to let climate change get in the way of education. Rezwan, an architect by training, is the brain behind Bangladesh's "floating schools" -- classrooms on boats, a school that goes to the student when the student can't go to school.

When Rezwan started the floating school experiment in 1998, he was armed with $500 and one old computer. "I decided to start the work by staying in the villages and working with the local people. It took me four years to generate the revenue to build the first boat," says Rezwan, who founded the nonprofit Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha to work with local communities and tap indigenous knowledge. In 2002, the first floating school was ready.

The school is a flat-bottomed boat made from local wood, fashioned in the same manner as traditional boats in Bangladesh. It has a classroom with a blackboard, benches and desks to seat at least 35 students. The classroom also has two computers whose battery packs are recharged by solar panels strapped on the boat's roof.

The boat first serves as a school bus, making periodic stops to collect children from riverside stops. The boat then docks and class begins.

The schools provide primary education. They use the government school curriculum, infused with lessons about sustainability and biodiversity from books designed by Shidhulai. About 1,600 children attend the floating schools, and, Rezwan says, almost all who graduate move on to government-run high schools.

More girls, fewer dropouts


The floating schools have helped keep the high dropout rate in check. They have also raised literacy among girls, Rezwan says. He explains, "If the girl needs to travel a long way to school, then the parents are not interested in sending the girl to school. In our school, we are bringing the school to them, so the enrollment of girls in the school is more."

Education at Shidhulai doesn't end with the children. The organization holds screenings of educational programs for adults. The venue is, not surprisingly, a boat called the "mobile education and information center." Films are screened on the boat via images cast from a projector onto a big sailcloth.

Shidhulai works in three districts in northwest Bangladesh -- Natore, where Rezwan grew up; Pabna; and Sirajganj. Like much of Bangladesh, these are rural areas and predominantly agricultural. The lack of roads has led to a rise in crime because law enforcers simply take too long to get to the region.

Rezwan's boats reach areas where there are no roads. His schools are just the tip of the iceberg of Shidhulai's water-based initiatives. "We introduced floating libraries with books and computers, then we introduced floating training centers," says Rezwan.

Each floating library has 1,500 books, four solar-powered computers, a CD/DVD player and a range of educational material. The training centers teach sustainable farming practices to parents of students at Shidhulai's schools. The motivation: to make sure parents make enough money for their children's higher education.

Shidhulai also runs floating clinics that have doctors and paramedics and make bimonthly rounds of the riverine communities.

No electricity? No problem

Next, Rezwan turned his focus to rural Bangladesh's energy problem. Seventy percent of rural Bangladesh doesn't have electricity. With solar panels floating around with his schools, Rezwan decided to share the technology.

Using the design of the traditional Bangladeshi kerosene lantern, Shidhulai began making and distributing solar lamps. Lanterns are also awarded to the top five students in each floating class. A battery-charging boat makes weekly visits to villages to allow residents to recharge their lanterns.

Innovation is the name of the game at Shidhulai. The team works with local farmers in developing water farming methods to grow vegetables and raise fish and ducks in small man-made ponds, to help farmers carry on even when there's no land to farm on. They also help farmers introduce new varieties of flood-resistant sugar cane and rice in their fields.

From the first floating school in 2002, Rezwan and Shidhulai have come a long way. In 2003, they attracted the attention of the Global Fund for Children, which supported the project for six years. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF and other international charities followed suit, bringing Shidhulai fame and some measure of fortune to keep the good work going.

Shidhulai now runs 20 schools, 10 libraries, seven training centers, five clinics, two solar workshops and 10 transportation vehicles, all of which float. In addition to these 54 regularly used boats, Shidhulai has 55 more that are used to shelter and evacuate people during floods.

In 2007, Shidhulai was awarded the UNEP Sasakawa Prize, which recognizes significant contributions worldwide to sustainable development. The announcement of the Sasakawa Prize brought a rush of international media to Rezwan's gangway, and more attention followed. Rezwan has attended conferences across the world on climate change, innovation and sustainability, where he shares his success story.

Innovate or 'suffer'

"I understand that it has inspired many people to come up with similar solutions: for example, houses that can float," Rezwan says.

And, indeed, the idea seems to be catching on. Today, innovators in Nigeria and Zambia are planning their own floating schools, and architects in Thailand and the Netherlands are drawing up blueprints for amphibious homes.

Back at Shidhulai, work goes on. Rezwan's latest project is to develop a flood warning system using changes in water pressure to trigger sirens to alert people along the river and on the coast.

While he goes about helping Bangladesh adapt to climate change, Rezwan hopes others will do their part, as well. "We should focus on reducing CO2 emissions; the developed world should focus on that. We should think firmly about reducing our energy consumption, from fossil fuel."

His theory: "Everyone should understand that all of us will suffer. In Bangladesh or any developed country, they're going to suffer sooner or later. So they have to come together."

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