In Flood-Prone Bangladesh, a Future That Floats

September 28, 2007 | By | Reply More

Boat schools in Bangladesh give students access to education during flooding, which has grown worse because of warming.SINGRA, Bangladesh: With most of his school under floodwaters, 6-year-old Mohamed Achan pulled his oversize tomato-red shorts up around his tiny waist, placed a tarp over his head to guard against the rain, and sprinted barefoot to the edge of his muddy village. There, he waited for his classroom to arrive in a boat.

The boats plying the rivers and canals here in northeastern Bangladesh are school bus and schoolhouse in one, part of a 45-vessel fleet that includes library boats. There are plans for floating villages, floating gardens and floating hospitals as well, in case more of this region finds itself under water.

Like a scene out of the 1995 post-apocalyptic movie “Water world,” in which the continents are submerged after the polar ice caps melt and the survivors live out at sea, the boat schools and libraries are a creative response to flooding that scientists largely agree has been worsened by global warming.

Melting glaciers in the Himalayas are already causing sea levels to rise here, and scientists say Bangladesh may lose up to 20 percent of its land by 2030 as a result of flooding. That Bangladesh is among the most vulnerable countries on the planet to climate change is a tragedy for its 150 million people, most of whom are destitute.

The need for a Bangladeshi Water world, experts say, has never been more urgent.

“For Bangladesh, boats are the future,” said Abul Hasanat Mohammed Rezwan, an architect who started the boats project here and who now oversees it as executive director of the nonprofit Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a name that means self-reliance. “As Bangladeshi citizens, it’s our responsibility to find solutions because the potential for human disaster is so huge. We have to be bold. Everyone loves land. But the question is: Will there be enough? Millions of people will have nowhere to go.”

Climate change is the latest cause celebre in the West, the focus of Live Earth rock concerts and celebrity-endorsed campaigns to reduce the greenhouse gases that have caused temperatures to rise worldwide.

Fighting global warming in the United States means cutting down on air-conditioning usage or relying more on mass transit. But in Bangladesh, global warming means that children like Mohamed Achan are going to school on modern-day versions of Noah’s ark. And, as their villages erode and become smaller and smaller islands, the children and their families may eventually live on a boat.

While Mohammed and his parents have contributed little to climate change — they have neither a car nor electricity — it is families like theirs that suffer the consequences of the increasingly violent storms and deadly cyclones that scientists have attributed to global warming.

Bangladesh has always been a world capital for natural disasters. The flat country is barely above sea level and sits atop a low-lying river delta, the world’s largest. It’s also nestled amid some of Asia’s largest rivers, including the Ganges and the Jamuna-Brahmaputra.

While melting glaciers have led to rising sea levels, so too have unusually heavy rains in recent years. Floods are damaging Bangladesh’s breadbasket regions in what may be the worst threat of all to a population that depends on small-scale farming for food, experts say.

Scientists in Dhaka, the capital, predict that as many as 20 million people in Bangladesh will become “climate refugees” by 2030, unable to farm or survive on their flooded land. The migration has already started. In 1995, half of Bhola Island, Bangladesh’s biggest island, was swallowed by rising sea levels, leaving 500,000 people homeless.

“The economic loss for farmers will just be devastating,” said MD Shamsuddoha, a scientist in Dhaka who has studied flooding issues in coastal areas. “We’re already seeing hundreds of thousands of climate refugees moving into slums in Dhaka. What will happen when things really get bad?”

The crisis is made worse by Bangladesh’s poverty and long history of weak and corrupt governments. Farmers who lose land in flooding often fight with neighbors over what is left and who owns what after the floodwaters recede. As a result, land disputes have backed up the courts in recent years, accounting for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s legal suits, said Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies and one of the country’s top climate change experts.

“If you’re a poor farmer and your village floods, you just can’t slap down a credit card and move to Washington. My challenge to the big polluting nations like the U.S., China and India is that for every hundred thousand tons of carbon you emit, you have to take in a Bangladeshi family,” Rahman said, only half-kidding as he stood before a map in his office, pointing to land that would be submerged in coming decades. “We have so many things to consider, including learning to live on boats. It will be a huge cultural headache. It won’t work for everyone and in some ways is a band-aid to the larger problem. But every last drop and every creative idea will help.”

Rezwan, a bookish and energetic man who wears sturdy work boots, has already been recognized for the creativity of his school boats. Former U.S. vice president Al Gore recently presented him with an international environmental award for his use of solar power on the boats.

As a child, Rezwan said, he was always frustrated when school was canceled during monsoon flooding.

“Later in life, as an architect I was asked to design for the rich,” he said as he climbed aboard one of his boat schools on a recent rainy Saturday. “But I thought, why can’t an architect design exciting things to help the poor in their own communities? I can’t tell you how happy I was the day the first boat school took the waters. It was really my dream.”

Rezwan started his nonprofit group in 1998 with just one flat-bottomed boat built from local materials and stretching about 30 feet long and 15 feet wide. Today, his boats fit about 60 young people — 40 on the deck and about 20 on wooden benches set up on the bow.

“At first, I wasn’t sure — go study on a boat?” said Nasrin Sultana, 18, a college student whose classes on dry land have been canceled because of constant flooding this year. “But now I am addicted to the boat library. They have computers, academic books and great novels. People love coming. It’s become a community center that people look forward to.”

The boat schools are 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.

That money helped Rezwan set up hugely popular Internet services — including live chats with scientists — and design a solar-powered lamp that he gives out to families so their children can study at night. Without the lamps, parents would have to burn polluting and expensive kerosene.

Along the winding river canals that flow around the mud-hut villages, mosques and rice fields here, 230 miles northeast of the capital, the boat schools are so loved that crowds of children cheer upon seeing them dock.

The boats operate year-round and offer a full primary school education with the same syllabus as classrooms on dry land. They avoid dangerous weather patterns by sticking close to mapped-out routes, typically along more shallow waters near the communities they serve.

The schools serve about 90,000 families in an area covering more than 300 miles, and make three- to four-hour stops six days a week.

“I love the boat so much more than regular school,” Mohamed said, swinging his thin legs as he sat on a bench reading a stack of stories. “It’s so fun when it comes to your doorstep.”

The school boats have also made it easier for girls to attend classes. Before, their parents were reluctant to let them walk long distances to school; now the schools come to them.

Rezwan said he hopes his floating village idea will catch on. He is working on sanitation issues and already trying to develop floating gardens, similar to those in Kashmir. Farmers there found they could build an earth bed of roots and dirt in a lake — thus enjoying constant irrigation — and produce huge harvests of vegetables.

Already, villagers say they know their way of life will have to change.

“I’ll be ready if this housing project on water works,” said Samsun Nahar, 30, a mother with a baby on her hip who came to a boat recently to recharge her solar lamp. “We’re so worried about the floods spoiling our crops that we are ready to do anything. Even live on water.”

Source: Washington Post Foreign Service
Photography: Salahuddin titu 


Category: Climate Change, ICT for Development

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  1. Md. Arafatul Islam says:

    Fight against Climate Change: Projects from South Africa and Bangladesh Share Prestigious Environment Award

    Ms. Jeunesse Park of South Africa and Bangladeshi NGO Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha are the co-winners of the UNEP Sasakawa Prize 2007, a $200,000 prize awarded yearly to individuals or institutions who have made a substantial contribution to the protection and management of the environment.

    Abul Hasanat Mohammed Rezwan, Shidhulai Executive Director, noted that the prize will help his organization “provide clean solar-powered lighting and educate thousands of people on literacy, sustainable farming and climate change”, as well as promote “self-reliance for hundreds of villages in Bangladesh”.

    The UNEP Sasakawa Prize acts as an incentive for environmental efforts that are sustainable and replicable in the long-term. It recognizes innovation, groundbreaking research and ideas, and extraordinary grassroots initiatives from around the world. The candidates’ scope of activities is associated with the environmental theme of the year, which in 2007 is climate change.

  2. Ronamica Akhter says:

    Yesterday I got an e-mail from one of my Bangladeshi friend, who lives in Washington. He send me some articles about Shidulai Swanirvar Sangstha, an NGO working in Bangladesh. Most of the reports published in the National Daily Newspaper in Bangladesh like Daily Ittefaq, Janakantha, Independent, Naya Diganta.

    At the same time I saw news in Washigton post, this Bangladeshi NGO received prize from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for its significant contribution to the management of the environment in Bangladesh. As a Bangladeshi, I am very much happy to saw the news.

    After that another National Daily Newspaper the Daily Star published a follow-up report on 28 September, 2007 titled ‘Behind the
    Scenes’ regarding Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha. This is the link of the daily star news:

    Reading the daily star report I am really shocked. Now I am fully confused about the NGO and its activities. I heard recently Daily Prothom-alo published news in favour of the activities of the NGO. At the same time daily star published a follow-up report, which was opposite of prothom-alo report.

    For your attention I give you another two links of published report about this NGO:
    I hope some one come and tell the truth about this NGO and other NGO’s like this. If there is anything wrong behind the NGO’s activities in Bangladesh, every one should have to speak out.

    Best Regards,
    Ronamica Akhter
    New York, USA

  3. Debobroto says:

    Once again this example is a proof of how helpless and vulnerable we, the common people are, in the hands of our mainstream media.

    I remember a mail at BanglaIT last 23rd that shows how our media is tied up with profit monger ownerships (Source: and therefore, lacks reliability. Now the Washington Post news proves that media can also manipulate/misdirect other media as well !

    Anyway, my hats off to Shidhulai. The Civil Society (NGO community), International Aid Agencies, Bangladesh Government and the Media Vanguards have pathetically failed to establish either side of the coin, that whatever the reality of SSS is, if it?s positive or negative.

    We are left but on our own now?..


  4. Tridip Chakraborty says:

    Yes, the Daily Prothom-alo is giving enough coverage
    in favour of that NGO. The recent published news link

    http://www.prothom- news_details_ home.php? dt=2007-09- 28&issue_

    Although investigating report published in the Daily
    Ittefaq & the Daily Star already went against the NGO.

    http://www.ittefaq. com/get.php? d=07/08/20/ w/n_zmtqxv

    http://www.thedaily magazine/ 2007/09/04/ follow.htm

    We people living here also confused like you. Who can
    tell us the true?

    Kind regards.

    Tridip Chakraborty

  5. Md. Kawsarul Alam Sarker says:

    Dear Ronamica,

    Thanks for your nice comments about Shidulai Swanirvar Sangstha, an NGO of Bangladesh.

    Its the real picture of this NGO’s. We can call this is the NGO business in our developing countries. Maximum NGO’s are doing their business like Shidulai Swanirvar Sangstha. They are very much experienced in publicity of their work and excellent in reporting to increase their business with the help of Journalists/ News Papers. The News Papers and Journalist should verify before publishing any such news. NGO’s are very much efficient about writing and documentation of their activities. Before selection for giving any Prize, I think UNEP should verify in future about the programme of the NGO’s by local UNDP, Bangladesh. So that they can see the real picture.

    I hope UNEP should re-think about awarding this Prize to Shidulai Swanirvar Sangstha, an NGO of Bangladesh.

    With best regards and Eid Mubarak to you all.

    ………… ……… ……… ……… ……… ……… ……… ……… ..
    Md. Kawsarul Alam Sarker
    FAO of the United Nations: NFPCSP-GCP/BGD/ 034/MUL
    Food Planning and Monitoring Unit (FPMU)
    Khaddaya Bhaban (Ground Floor)
    16 Abdul Ghani Road, Dhaka-1000
    Tel-(88)-0172- 0343867

  6. S M Nazer Hossain says:

    Dear Kaisar,

    Thanks for your mail to the voice mail. I am not agree with your comments, you should think all NGOs are not same, If somebody has some fault, it will not be same for all. Al time some government people blame NGOs, but they do not think what their roles? This is not real picture. Real picture is some so call NGOs who is come from ex government officials, business men, or family member of high government officials are making NGO businiess and the so called government officials are involved in this nasty business.

    I raed the story in daily star magazine, If you think when daily star published it is it all the journalsit were blind? They collect information from fields. What steps taken from UNO at respective areas.

    We have seen some of Bangladeshis who are live in our society they are alaways publicise negative news for Bangladesh. This is their culture. We have more good news in NGOs. In last flood rehabilitation progremme, you seen only the NGOs, no others agencies were there.

    So, I request not blame in general, be specific and think why?

    S M Nazer Hossain
    Chairperson ADAB Chittagong

  7. Subbiah Arunachalam says:


    There are many libraries in B’desh. And there are many boats in B’desh. But there is a raging controversy on the question if there are some libraries functioning in boats in B’desh. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a few other international agencies believe not only that there are such libraries but that they are functioning so well that they gave them awards and recognition. A group of journalists who visited the region say that they have not found much evidence. Now the agency that had won the awards has sent a legal notice to a journalist and his newspaper.

    But so far the agencies that gave the award – including the Gates Foundation – have not come up with a statement. We do not know if they had made any investigation. It is only proper that they come up with a statement. Either they should say that the awards were given only after proper scrutiny and present evidence to show that the project really exists and that is really doing well. Or they should come up with a statement that they were misled in the first place and the the award was a mistake. Too many awards [and many of them given without proper scrutiny of the applicants and their claims] can only have deleterious consequences.

    In the field of ICT-enabled development, this has happened time and again. International awards were given to people for bridging the digital divide, but the project on the basis of which such awards were given have ended up in utter failure.

    Subbiah Arunachalam

  8. Rafiq Shaahid says:

    Dear Friends,

    I have seen those things too in a Groups/Blogs, very sad and shocking.

    But wish for the best and if any mismanagement conducted, lots of authority are active now….. as a general people I appreciate the initiative.

    Good thinking and wishing.


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