Climate change is getting a lot of attention in America this fall, thanks in part to the havoc wreaked upon New York by Hurricane Sandy. But that’s nothing compared to its effects on low-lying Bangladesh, which has struggled with global warming-induced floods for years now. Bangladesh now endures two annual floods, leaving millions of people without access to clean water, electricity, and other basic amenities for huge portions of the year.
Since the rising tides of global warming won’t be slowing down anytime soon, a group called Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha has come up with an incredibly simple alternative: build homes, health care offices, and schools that can float. Founded by a Bangladeshi architect named Mohammed Rezwan in 2008, the nonprofit runs a fleet of almost a hundred boats that offer education to kids and their parents, as well as access to libraries, health care, and information about agriculture and financial management. "I like the floating school," says one young student. "During the Monsoon, water is everywhere. Everything is shut down. Only the floating school comes around at that time, right up to our doors." Rezwan, speaking over email, compares the program to a cross between a school and a school bus.
What’s fascinating about Shidhulai is the technology it’s actively developing to help families in the lowlands. "Issues like this need local solutions by local people," writes the nonprofit. Rezwan oversees a small army of engineers and technicians, who manufacture everything from PV panels to bicycle-powered pumps. He’s developed a warning system for floods, and three different types of solar-powered lamps, which are given to families for free if their kids attend school on a regular basis. The batteries can be used to light homes or charge cell phones, and they can be recharged at the boats on a weekly basis. Rezwan also designs the boats, he explains, "to adjust to any equipment configuration as well as to protect the electronic equipment from inclement weather, even during the height of the monsoon." Each school boat has Internet, a laptop, and a small library.
Shidhulai also focuses on improving families’ access to farming techniques. Rezwan created a system he calls "solar water farming," which lets stranded villagers harness solar power to continue feeding themselves even without access to land or fertilizer."[The system includes] floating beds made of water hyacinth (to grow vegetables), a portable circular enclosure created by fishing net and bamboo strips (to raise fish) and floating duck coop powered by solar lamp," he tells Co.Design. "It has a recycling system—duck manure is used as fish foods, old water hyacinth beds are sold as organic fertilizer, and the sun energy lights up the duck coop to maintain the egg production."
Rather than wondering whether they should be building homes near the river (as New Yorkers are now doing), Shidhulai is actively building homes on the river. Rezwan says that 46 of its 88 boats are being converted into climate shelters for displaced families. The shift has ended up offering new opportunities to people who otherwise would have little access to these types of services. Using the rivers to transport information, health care, and energy is a brilliantly simple idea, despite the dire circumstances. After all, breakthroughs in transportation usually go hand-in-hand with education and economic growth. "It’s helping people adapt to the changing climate," says Rezwan. "And at the same time, it’s teaching them how to protect the environment and use the natural resources."