The lives of more than 2.8 billion people worldwide were disrupted by flooding between 1980 and 2009, and the disruptions seem destined to increase because of climate change.

Of the 158 million people living in Bangladesh, around 66 per cent live in rural areas. In 2002, it was estimated that more than one fifth of the country floods annually during the monsoon season, but extreme floods can cover up to two thirds. In recent years, the flooding has become more severe.

During the monsoon period, thousands of schools are forced to close, and many children miss school days. In 2007, an estimated 1.5 million students, or about 10 per cent of those enrolled in primary school, were affected by floods. Unfortunately, these are rural students who have trouble accessing schooling even under normal circumstances.

I founded Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha in 1998. I seldom missed school days as a child – I used to go to school on a family boat during the flooding. But many of my friends were denied education. I wanted to do something about this. If children couldn’t come to school, the school should come to them. I came up with a creative solution to the problem of extreme flooding and introduced ‘floating schools’ to the students in 2002. Our school boat first serves as a school bus, collecting children from riverside stops; then it docks and class begins. It has a classroom, book library and electronic resources. Our boat is solar powered, allowing the school to have an Internet-linked computer, which makes learning more interactive and easier for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Floating schools are a creative way to ensure year-round access to education in flood-prone communities. They were introduced in 2002 by an NGO called Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha. | All photos © Abir Abdullah/Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha The boats first serve as school buses, collecting children from riverside stops. They then dock and classes begin. Each boat has a capacity of 30 students, and is equipped with internet-linked computers and a library. The library provides reading material for children and community members. Nupur, Iti and Hasy are 8-year-old students in Grade 3 on a school-boat in the village of Nasiarkandi. “School comes to us and we love to get on board and learn new things,” Iti says. In Singra, a double-decker floating school provides primary education on the lower deck and training courses for adults on the upper deck. On the upper deck, parents participate in workshops on children’s and women’s rights, sustainable farming and ways to cope with climate change. The ‘floating school’ concept has spread across the world – from Cambodia to Nigeria, the Philippines, Viet Nam and Zambia.
Floating schools are a creative way to ensure year-round access to education in flood-prone communities. They were introduced in 2002 by an NGO called Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha. | All photos © Abir Abdullah/Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha

The students who get good exam results receive Surya Hurricane solar lanterns. At the end of the school day, many students take home these lanterns, which are re-charged using the boat’s solar system. This gives the children better light by which to do their homework in the evening.

The schools provide primary education. During classes, students discover a variety of subjects. For instance, they learn about the environment around them, exploring topics such as water pollution, conservation and biodiversity. Approximately 1,810 children attend classes on 22 school boats. Our organization also runs a fleet of boats that serve as libraries and adult education centres, where parents receive training on children’s and women’s rights, nutrition, health and hygiene, sustainable farming and adaptation to climate change. We use multimedia equipment to provide this training.

To combat discrimination and unequal educational opportunities for women, the project trains parents to send their girls to school. Girls and young women are taking full advantage of the education and information facilities that the floating schools bring right to their doorstep – allaying the concerns of their parents and guardians. “I love our school boat. I get excited when it comes to our doorsteps and the teacher asks to get onboard. When I grow up I will be a schoolteacher like her and teach other children in our village.” said Kakoli Khatun, 7, in Grade 2 on the floating school.

Parents who participate in the adult education programme are growing flood-resistant crops and using ‘integrated floating farming’ that ensures year-round food and income. Shahnaj Begum, 34, said “The floating classroom trains us to grow vegetables and raise ducks and fish. We produce enough vegetables, fish and eggs. We eat and then sell them at the market. We can earn during the rainy season. It has increased our income.”

The idea was to ‘combine a school bus with the schoolhouse, and use the local boat to create a floating space’ to ensure access to basic education. Working with area boat builders, I designed the schools by modifying traditional Bangladeshi wooden boats, using local materials and building methods. The boats are about 55 feet long and 11 feet wide, with a main cabin that can fit 30 children. Metal beams allow for column-free spaces, and the boats have flexible wooden floors, high ceilings and waterproof roofs outfitted with solar panels. These multilayered roofs can withstand heavy monsoon rains. The walls of the boat incline to the exterior that holds the curved roof, giving the boat a sculptural form. Viewed from the riverbank, the community members see the school boat as a ‘river turtle’.

Before launching the first school boat, we developed a prototype and field-tested it in a riverside community. Later we tested it in different settings to check its robustness. The testing phase generated new ideas, and based on the boats’ performance, we made changes to the design and developed project strategies.

At first it was a lonely enterprise. I started with US$500 from my own scholarship money and savings, plus an old computer. It took me four years to generate funds to build the first school boat. We worked with the watershed management and solid waste exchange project during that period. A year after launching the floating school, we received a US$5,000 grant from an international organization.

Our organization is exploring a new business model – charging fees for Surya Hurricane solar lanterns in communities where people have the ability to pay. This income is directed towards the operating costs of existing school boats. We continue to look for grants in order to scale up and reach more children. The education and renewable energy supply is always free for all children.

Shidhulai’s ‘floating school’ model has spread across the world, and school boats now serve children in Cambodia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Viet Nam and Zambia, where they are having a transformative impact upon education and communities in flood-prone regions.