Bangladesh: Crisis in Slow Motion

Bangladesh is a massive river delta, and river erosion is taking more than 100 sq. km. of land per year. According to local officials, it displaces more than 100,000 riverside residents per year, and the pace is accelerating, fed by melting glaciers and monsoons upstream. We visited the massive Jamuna River near Sirajganj in the northwest corner of the country and saw where large chunks of the dike and roadway had collapsed just a few weeks earlier. The road was impassable; the government had thrown a few sandbags on the damaged dike, but further repairs did not appear to be in the cards. This corner of the country is one of the poorest, with the least representation in government.

Mohammed Rezwan, the director of the Shidhulai floating schools project, pointed to a distant boat that appeared as a speck on the river and indicated that a decade ago, the shoreline was near there.

Rezwan took us two hours further west to his project site on the Atrai River. I scrutinized my official Bangladesh map -- there is no river shown where the Atrai flows, now nearly cresting its banks. I've repeatedly asked for a more detailed or local map, but no one I ask has ever seen one. This area is truly "out of site, out of mind" as far as government services are concerned. Most of this area has no access to electricity (Bangladesh's population is 85% rural, of whom only 19% have access to electric power), no water systems, unmarked and unpaved roads (and those that are paved are more pothole than pavement), with limited educational opportunities.

Bangladesh has received extensive international aid over the years, which some here lament for having bred the expectation of getting something for free. On the drive to Shidhulai, the car was blocked by an elephant whose driver wouldn't let us pass until we handed the elephant a 50 Taka (75 cents) bill (it refused a 10 Taka note). Even the elephants have gotten in the habit of handouts.

The Shidhulai project provides floating schools that serve 1500 students in grades 1-4. There are additional boats that provide basic health care services, as well as libraries, internet access, and adult education in sustainable farming and other practical skills.

New double-decker boats have the capacity for round-tabled classrooms on the lower level -- designed to maximize interactivity among the kids -- with adult education courses on the upper level. It gets loud as sound travels easily between the levels, but strong-lunged teachers manage to keep most of their students on topic.

The second day we visited the river, the water level was higher and the current faster. Such variations are a daily occurrence, but it struck me as odd that we could have blue skies yet the river was rising. This traditional school on the shore has been closed due to rising waters.

To the people here, the river is their lifeblood. They fish in it, farm with it, travel on it, bathe and swim in it, depend on it. Yet the surging current, growing as the monsoon season peaks and the earth warms, will not let them rest easy.

Shidhulai is now developing "climate shelter" boats with solar rooftop panels, each designed to accommodate a family when their home is swept away by flooding. Still in the prototype stage, it is clear that when the next flood strikes, the demand will far outstrip the supply.