Beyond island nations like the Maldives that are quickly getting submerged, no country is more threatened by climate change than Bangladesh. Sitting at the bottom of three huge rivers, much of its surface area is either covered with water, or barely above sea level. Many of its 154 million inhabitants are poor (about a quarter earn less than $2 a day) and Bangladeshis often live in structures unsuited to severe weather. Bangladesh, in short, is a climate disaster in the making. By 2030, rising water could make 20% of the country uninhabitable, forecasts show.
Faced with such doom, it's logical to design things that can float. Aside from building on stilts (which is expensive) or somehow holding back nature, it's the only way. For the last 12 years, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha has been doing just that. The nonprofit group started with schools, then moved on to libraries, and health clinics, and training centers. More recently, the group has come up with a design for a floating farm. In all, it now operates 111 boats, including a new two-tiered school that has classrooms on a lower level and a playground on top.
"Right now in Bangladesh, we can feel the presence of climate change. The water is getting bigger, the rivers are rising," says Mohammed Rezwan, who leads the charity and designs the boats.
The farm-boats are meant particularly for monsoon season, which runs from June to October. Much of the Chalan Beel region, where Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha operates, becomes flooded, making traditional agriculture impossible.
The floating structures have enough space for 10 families to keep ducks, and grow vegetables on beds of water hyacinth (like these). "It's a good idea to use the surface water [for growing]," says Rezwan. "We're expecting big floods in the next few years [which will reduce the available farmland]." The farms also help reduce migration, he adds, because local people can stay put, rather than going to higher ground.
Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha's 22 school boats already educate 1,800 kids. But Rezwan wanted something that would let kids run around, not just study. The two-desk vessels, which are 65 feet long, allow that, and the top floor can also be used for community activities. They can accommodate 30 kids at a time.
The nonprofit also runs 10 floating libraries full of books and computers, seven health clinics and seven training boats, where locals are educated in farming techniques, human rights, and other topics. In all, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha helps 100,000 people a year, Rezwan estimates.
Groups in Cambodia, the Philippines, Zambia, and Nigeria have all built their own versions of the school—though not always to Rezwan's liking. Some of the boats are made of steel (not local materials), he complains, and some are flat-bottomed, which could make them unstable in a big storm. If the idea is to spread sustainably and safely, Rezwan says an international agency needs to step in and produce guidelines for others to follow.