Human Effort

156: Floating schools


Educators in Bangladesh have a problem. Not only do they face many of the same challenges as teachers in other resource-poor countries — funding constraints, outdated textbooks, overcrowded classrooms — they also have to worry about monsoon rains. Flooding is so common in Bangladesh that students often cannot get to the classroom.


Floating schools

Architect and designer Mohammed Rezwan had considered dedicating his life to building schools and hospitals in flood-prone areas of the north-west, then he realized they would be underwater soon. Not only do floods cause the loss of lives and livelihoods, they also severely interrupt children’s education. So Rezwan started designing spaces on boats for school.

If children could not go to school, then the school should go to them. Working with local boat builders, he designed the schools by altering traditional Bangladeshi wooden boats, using native materials and building methods.

With a main cabin that can fit 30 children, the boats are 55 ft. (17 m.) long by 11 ft. (3m³5) wide incorporating a flat-bottomed hull, flexible wooden floors, top-hinged side windows for daylight and natural ventilation, arched metal beams for column-free spaces, outward-inclining bamboo and wood walls, and monsoon-proof curved roofs with large overhangs equipped with solar panels.

The floating school collects students from their homes, moors to the riverside and provides on-board small-group instruction. After school, students take home a recharged, low-cost solar lantern, which provides light at night by which they can study and women can do craftwork to earn extra income, which is also sold to community members to fund the initiative.

In the evening, the boats project educational programmes onto screens that people can watch from their homes. The project has even helped to develop floating crop beds to ensure year-round food supply and income for families in flood-prone areas.

In 2002 to finance his mission, Rezwan set up nonprofit organization Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha. Thanks to considerable donations, during the next sixteen years a fleet of over one hundred solar-powered boats with a lifespan of between 50 and 100 years were built serving close to 500,000 people in flood-prone areas.

They now serve as schools, providing free year-round primary education for children in riverbank communities; libraries fitted with books; Internet-linked computers, printers and mobile phones; health clinics offering free healthcare; and adult education centers that train parents and villagers on children’s and women’s rights, nutrition, health and hygiene, sustainable farming and climate change adaptation, such as the planting of flood-resistant crops.

Plying the waterways, they pull up alongside villages that would otherwise be too isolated to receive such support. Cultural norms restrict the movement of girls, meaning that many of them would not attend traditional school at all, but now education is delivered to their doorstep.

Shidhulai’s floating school model has spread across the world, and school boats serve children in flood-prone regions in Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Zambia. In 2012, the organization won the U.N. Prize for Inspiring Environmental Action.

What you can do: Make a donation to Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha

Discover Solution 157: Floating solar farms

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