Boats bring school to Bangladesh families hit by regular flooding

Shidhulai Swarnirvar Sangstha builds boats that pick children up at their homes and educate them inside. (Photo by Abir Abdullah/Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha)

Many families in Bangladesh lose access to school due to flooding by annual monsoons. So Abul Hasanat Mohammed Rezwan designed boats to bring schools to children stranded at home.

“If the students can’t come to the school, then the school should come to them,” said Rezwan, who is the executive director of Shidhulai Swarnirvar Sangstha.

Shidhulai Swarnirvar Sangstha is transforming waterways into pathways by floating classes and curriculum through the flooded waters to children.

Rezwan’s boat designs are one of the 25 projects featured at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center’s “Design with the 90%,” an exhibition showcasing design solutions for a more equitable world that aims to increase access, improve health and empower marginalized communities around the globe, according to Gates Foundation Discovery Center.

“Design with the 90%” will be at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center through May 11, 2019.

One-third of Bangladesh floods annually during the monsoon season, causing extreme flooding covering majority of the country according to Shidhulai Swarnirvar Sangstha.

Rezwan said he grew up in a lowland area, and the regular flooding made it hard to accomplish anything in the villages.

“When I was a child, it was very difficult for me to go to school,” Rezwan said. “We had a small family transportation boat that took me to school, but my friends and other relatives became school dropouts when they couldn’t go to school.”

After graduating from college 20 years ago, Rezwan became interested in architecture. Wanting to do something good for the people, he was inspired by a famous building in Dhaka by an American architect.

“I wanted to build schools and hospitals for the people in my village, but it was a challenge,” Rezwan said.

He knew the buildings in the flood-prone area often would be underwater during the monsoon season.

In 1998 he began his journey on his own, with about $500 and a single computer.

“It took me four years to build the first school boat,” Rezwan said.

The first school boat set sail in 2002. Now 23 school boats travel to villages picking up students where they would for two hours and get dropped back to their homes.

He calls the boats “floating schools,” but he also has built floating medical clinics and boats that teach farmers about sustainable agriculture methods to help local landless farmers continue to farm and secure their income.

Rezwan said the local people build the boats using his design and local materials. The boats should last from 50 to 100 years.

“It takes about four to six months to build,” Rezwan said.

The boats include wireless computers with internet and small libraries.

Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha — which means “a self-relying village organization” — is a nonprofit organization working to combat accessibility issues in the most flood-prone regions of Bangladesh. More than 40 percent of Bangladesh’s population are considered landless by the government and 31.5 percent live below the poverty line, according to the Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha website.

“It didn’t make sense to build stationary schools,” Rezwan said. “The only option was to build floating schools and hospitals.”