In Flood-Prone Bangladesh, a Future That Floats

Boat schools in Bangladesh give students access to education during flooding, which has grown worse because of warming. The low-lying country is particularly vulnerable to climate change.
Boat schools in Bangladesh give students access to education during flooding, which has grown worse because of warming. The low-lying country is particularly vulnerable to climate change. (By Abir Abdullah For The Washington Post)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 27, 2007

SINGRA, Bangladesh -- With most of his school under floodwaters, 6-year-old Mohamed Achan pulled his oversize tomato-red shorts up around his tiny waist, placed a tarp over his head to guard against the rain, and sprinted barefoot to the edge of his muddy village. There, he waited for his classroom to arrive -- in a boat.

The boats plying the rivers and canals here in northeastern Bangladesh are school bus and schoolhouse in one, part of a 45-vessel fleet that includes library boats. There are plans for floating villages, floating gardens and floating hospitals as well, in case more of this region finds itself under water.

Like a scene out of the 1995 post-apocalyptic movie "Waterworld," in which the continents are submerged after the polar ice caps melt and the survivors live out at sea, the boat schools and libraries are a creative response to flooding that scientists largely agree has been worsened by global warming.

Melting glaciers in the Himalayas are already causing sea levels to rise here, and scientists say Bangladesh may lose up to 20 percent of its land by 2030 as a result of flooding. That Bangladesh is among the most vulnerable countries on the planet to climate change is a tragedy for its 150 million people, most of whom are destitute.

The need for a Bangladeshi Waterworld, experts say, has never been more urgent.

"For Bangladesh, boats are the future," said Abul Hasanat Mohammed Rezwan, an architect who started the boats project here and who now oversees it as executive director of the nonprofit Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a name that means self-reliance. "As Bangladeshi citizens, it's our responsibility to find solutions because the potential for human disaster is so huge. We have to be bold. Everyone loves land. But the question is: Will there be enough? Millions of people will have nowhere to go."

Climate change is the latest cause celebre in the West, the focus of Live Earth rock concerts and celebrity-endorsed campaigns to reduce the greenhouse gases that have caused temperatures to rise worldwide.

Fighting global warming in the United States means cutting down on air-conditioning usage or relying more on mass transit. But in Bangladesh, global warming means that children like Mohamed Achan are going to school on modern-day versions of Noah's ark. And, as their villages erode and become smaller and smaller islands, the children and their families may eventually live on a boat.

While Mohammed and his parents have contributed little to climate change -- they have neither a car nor electricity -- it is families like theirs that suffer the consequences of the increasingly violent storms and deadly cyclones that scientists have attributed to global warming.

Bangladesh has always been a world capital for natural disasters. The flat country is barely above sea level and sits atop a low-lying river delta, the world's largest. It's also nestled amid some of Asia's largest rivers, including the Ganges and the Jamuna-Brahmaputra.

While melting glaciers have led to rising sea levels, so too have unusually heavy rains in recent years. Floods are damaging Bangladesh's breadbasket regions in what may be the worst threat of all to a population that depends on small-scale farming for food, experts say.

Scientists in Dhaka, the capital, predict that as many as 20 million people in Bangladesh will become "climate refugees" by 2030, unable to farm or survive on their flooded land. The migration has already started. In 1995, half of Bhola Island, Bangladesh's biggest island, was swallowed by rising sea levels, leaving 500,000 people homeless.

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