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With a population of 156 million, Bangladesh ranks amongst the world's most populous nations. What makes the situation worse is that most of the country is situated on the low-lying Ganges delta, formed by the confluence of three major rivers - Ganges, Brahamputra and Meghna. As a result, it is highly susceptible to flooding especially during the rainy season from July to October, when the rivers rise as much as 12-feet, making many areas accessible only by boat.
The issues are particularly dire in the remote Chalanbeel region, an impoverished area where residents survive by farming on the rich delta soil when it is not under water. Reluctant parents and lack of teachers means that many kids living there do not attend school on a regular basis. The problem is exacerbated during the monsoon season when land schools became inaccessible. What is worse is that many students never return to school after the forced breaks.
Alarmed at the accelerating rate of school dropouts, 22-year-old Bangladeshi architect Mohammed Rezwan decided to take action. In 2002, the young man used $500 USD he had received in scholarships, to establish Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha. The non-profit organization's sole mission was to establish floating schools.
It took Rezwan four years to raise enough funds to open his first boat school. But as the world began to hear about the organization's worthy cause, money started to pour in. In 2003, he received $5,000 USD from the Global Fund For Children and then 100,000 USD from US-based Levi Foundation. The non-profit's biggest boost came in 2005, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated $1 million USD. These funds and the recent $20,000 USD grant from the WISE (World Innovation Summit For Education) has allowed the organization to expand beyond its original mission.
Today, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha boasts a fleet of 111 solar-powered boats, twenty two of which are designed to be floating schools, some with playgrounds on the upper deck. The rest are used as adult education centers, libraries, as well as floating health clinics that provide medical assistance and supplies to areas inaccessible by land during the monsoons. Recently, the organization stepped it up a notch, by introducing its first farm boat. The floating structure, which can serve up to ten families at a time, provides a safe refuge for domestic livestock like chickens and ducks and allows farmers to grow vegetables on beds of water hyacinth.
With these boats, Rezwan hopes to prepare residents of the low-lying areas of Bangladesh for the rising sea levels that he believes are inevitable thanks to climate change. As the flooding increases, it will reduce whatever little farm land the residents currently have access to, giving them no choice but to migrate to the already over-populated areas on higher ground. Rezwan hopes that access to the floating farms will prevent that from happening.
Bangladesh is not the only country that boasts floating schools - Low-lying areas in Cambodia and the Philippines also use them. However, Rezwan disapproves of most - some because of their flat-bottomed design that would not survive big storms and others, because they are constructed using steel. The philanthropist believes that in order for floating boats to become more widespread, they have to be sturdy enough to withstand forces of nature and built with local sustainable materials.
Resources: BBC.co.uk, Fastcompany.com, Forbes.com