Ripped apart by rivers, drenched by monsoons and floating just above the sea, Bangladesh is like the toe that the Himalayas are using to test the waters of the Indian Ocean. All of this exposure to water leads to yearly flooding, an immense challenge for the developing nation of 156 million. From crop loss to infrastructure damage, the costs of flooding are massive hurdles to poverty reduction; the floods in 2004 costed the country seven billion dollars. Perhaps the most insidious impacts of the floods is their disruptive effects on education in Bangladesh.
Founded in 1998, the Bangladesh nonprofit Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, recognized how the floods prohibited students from making it to school and decided to bring the school to them. They achieve this by bringing boats up the flooded waterways, which serve as both school buses and schools.
A fleet of 22 boats sail up the swollen rivers stopping to pick up children before they dock and class begins. Each boat takes around 30 children and has a small library and access to the world’s largest library through computers hooked up to the Internet and powered by solar panels.
With primary school attendance around 80%, increasing access to education is high on the agenda. The boat schools provide classes to an estimated 1,810 children. Although many more remain in need, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha reaches some of the most vulnerable.
What’s more, the boat schools provide critically-needed adult education that focuses on sustainable agriculture, healthcare and climate change adaptation. These programs holistically target the restraints that keep them in poverty.
For example, the climate change workshops help farmers develop production methods, such as floating vegetable gardens and raising fish and ducks, that can endure longer flooding periods and raising sea levels, both of which are effects of a changing climate. The lessons on sustainable agriculture help farmers to reduce erosion and pollution, and increase yields. These programs work together to clean the environment, increase access to food and boost incomes. Healthcare, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha’s other focus, brings medicines and doctors to rural parts of the country that have no access to clinics, keeping the populations healthy throughout the year.
What is even more important is that the success of the floating school model appears to be scalable. Many other parts of the world face similar issues that climate change will exacerbate. Cambodia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Vietnam and Zambia are all testing this innovative development strategy. The humanitarian arm of the United Nations that focuses on children and mothers, UNICEF, praises this method as “having a transformative impact upon education and communities in flood-prone regions.”
– John Wachter