Floating Above Bangladesh's Floods

In a country that may soon be underwater, boat-borne schools and farms may be the answer.

Children are let out of class for the day from a solar-powered floating school, operated by Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, on May 20 in Pabna District, Bangladesh. (Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

Climate change is a serious problem pretty much everywhere, but for low-lying, heavily populated Bangladesh, rising sea levels are a mortal threat. The massive floods this week that have left nearly half a million people homeless make that fact excruciatingly clear.

It may be too late to turn back the rising tides, but one innovative group is doing the next best thing: helping Bangladeshis float on top of them. Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a nonprofit based in the country, develops and designs floating schools, libraries, and health clinics. It operates a fleet of 111 such boats, “including a new two-tiered school that has classrooms on a lower level and a playground on top,” reports FastCo.Exist. Many of the boats are equipped with solar-powered wireless Internet connections. They’re even working on a boat-borne farm where families can raise ducks. That could come in handy: The current floods have already submerged 100,000 acres of farmland, doing huge damage to crops.

The need is especially acute in Bangladesh, which analysts have rated the country most threatened by climate change. It sits at the confluence of three enormous rivers, and much of its land is barely above sea level. “Soaring global temperatures are increasing glacial melt in the Himalayan ranges, swelling the rivers that flow down from the mountains and across the Bangladeshi floodplain, the largest in the world, far beyond their capacity,” says the IRIN news service. “The expanding volume of water is also causing higher sea levels to push inland. A rise above one metre, which could be reached in this century, means Bangladesh could lose 15 percent to 18 percent of its land area, turning 30 million people into ‘environmental refugees’ by 2050.” That’s almost one-fifth of the country's population.

Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha may have the most extensive such program, but it's not the only one. A Nigerian architect is working on a similar type of floating school, and there are some in Cambodia as well. As the earth keeps warming, we may start seeing even more.

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