In Bangladesh, roughly one-third of the country, much of which sits only a meter above sea level, goes underwater during monsoon season from June to October.
In those months, roads become inaccessible, crops and schoolhouses are destroyed and commerce stalls. Millions of Bangladeshis are forced to migrate to larger cities to feed their families.
Children suffer acutely during monsoon season. As sea levels rise and seasonal rains become more frequent and intense (scientists expect that 10 to 20% of Bangladesh will be submerged by seawater by 2030), local families are often unable — or unwilling — to send their children to school. When flooding decimates the family's food supply or puts one parent out of a job, children are often asked to stay home to work or farm.
Growing up in rural Northwest Bangladesh, Mohammed Rezwan witnessed decades of increasingly violent weather events, including dozens of monsoons and a 1991 cyclone that killed 138,000 people. Though his family owned a small transportation boat that allowed him to attend some classes during rain season, Rezwan's friends and relatives weren't so lucky. During monsoon season, he says, they couldn't attend school, leaving many of them deprived of an elementary education.
“It was frustrating and difficult for me to accept this situation,” he says.
In 1998, after graduating with a degree in architecture from a university in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, Rezwan returned to the small village where he grew up and set out to devise a solution to the floods destroying Bangladesh's education.
Architects build houses or buildings for those who have the ability to construct them, but why can’t architecture do wonderful things for poorer people in their communities? I wanted to do something for the communities where I grew up.
Rezwan’s idea was to flood-proof education by designing and building a fleet of floating schools that could be replicated in other developing countries ravaged by floods. The same year he graduated, Rezwan embarked on his plan, called Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, with just $500 and a laptop.
Mohammed Rezwan speaks about the floating schools concept Mohammed Rezwan speaks about the floating schools concept
For the next four years, he balanced building his first school boat with attracting international fundraisers and local supporters. After emailing hundreds of organizations, Rezwan received a $3,000 grant from the Global Fund for Children in 2003 that allowed him to build and demonstrate the idea to local families.