A Floating Future for Bangladesh

Boatschool3b Cross-posted on Give2Asia Forum

The UN World Summit on Climate Change – Cop15, came to an end on Dec 18, 2009, with what most conceive to be vague and non-committal agreements by the developed nations. Disappointing as it is, I don’t think I had much expectations out of this conference. I took solace from what I saw on my last trip back home to Bangladesh (which is projected to be one of the hardest hit countries of climate change), and how the people have already started to take action in preparing for the unwarranted change in their environment and living conditions.

During my trip there, I noticed that winters were colder than people were equipped to endure, the annual monsoon rains came much later than usual and in sporadic bursts of heavy rainfall. The number of cyclones to hit the Bay of Bengal has also become more frequent. Having clean, drinking water supply is no more an isolated complaint of the village dwellers who live in impoverished conditions but has become a daily ordeal for the urban population too. According to environmental scientists, for Bangladesh, a country where the vast proportion of its land is a low lying delta, a one-meter rise in sea levels would displace some 30 million Bangladeshis and deal a catastrophic blow to economic growth and development. The fast melting snowcaps of the Himalayas and the subsequent swelling of the rivers, all contribute to floods around the country.

I found a glimmer of hope when I heard about a Bangladeshi man, who had thought ahead on how to cope with climate change and provide access to educational needs to children who are often inaccessible and isolated in villages inundated by flood waters for most of the year. He has been helping underprivileged children adapt to their very fluid environment by bringing education to their doorsteps via boats. Not only is this man helping people adapt to the climate change, but he is also using eco-friendly technology to accomplish the work with minimum impact on the environment.

Boatschool2 Abul Hasanat Mohammed Rezwan, an architect who started the ingenious concept of the “floating schools” project in northeastern Bangladesh, has set up a fleet of 45 boats, that serve as mobile classrooms by plying through the rivers and canals to reach the disadvantaged children on the river banks. The boats carry academic books, novels and computers that are run by solar panels placed on the boats’ rooftops. He has deployed university students who volunteer to teach the children on these boats.

Rezwan started his nonprofit group Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha in 1998 with just one flat-bottomed boat built from local materials and stretching about 30 feet long and 15 feet wide. Currently his boats fit around 60 young people – 40 on the deck and about 20 on wooden benches set up on the bow. The boat schools were made possible partly by an award of $1 million in 2005 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with funds from the Washington-based Global Fund for Children.

This is one of several successful climate adaptation measures taken by a citizen of Bangladesh for his people. While the world leaders negotiate and find the appropriate terms to word their agreements and accords, the onset of global warming and climate refugees have become a reality for many low lying countries such as Bangladesh. Floating hospitals and farms could be the much-needed next steps. The effectiveness and popularity of Rezwan’s floating schools, makes me think of the saying, “necessity is the mother of invention.” But how long is it that we can manage to stay afloat?