The Work

Nature has never made it easy to live in Bangladesh. The country is situated in the low-lying Ganges Delta, formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, and most of it is less than 10 meters above sea level. The northern part of the country is regularly swamped by flooding and the southern coast is frequently battered by cyclones and tornadoes. Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world and has one of the highest population densities with 150 million people situated on a land mass of 144,000 sq. kms. Millions of people live in river basins and are forced to battle against the elements, which worsen each year due to the effects of climate change. With increasingly violent cyclones and accelerating glacier melt in the Himalayas, flooding is predicted to create 20 million Bangladeshi “climate refugees” by mid-century as 17 per cent of land is lost to the sea.

The floods prevent people from getting access to basic services, such as education and healthcare, as the road networks are cut off for several months of the year. The organisation Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha is working to help people in the flood-prone regions of the Natore, Pabna and Sirajganj districts in Bangladesh. The villages have no mains electricity, no telephone lines, very basic sanitation and the inhabitants use water from the river. Many parents are reluctant to let their daughters travel to distant towns for education or training. Shidhulai has come up with an innovative solution, which involves using the river as a communications network. Shidhulai has converted boats into solar-powered floating schools, libraries, healthcare units and trainings centres to serve the isolated waterside communities.

  • Bangladesh has the highest rural population density in the world - around 1,209 people per sq. km. Pressure on the land is so overwhelming that it leaves little choice for the poorest segment of the population but to settle in remote, inaccessible riverside areas which are prone to flooding.

    Houses made of straw, bamboo and tin are often submerged under water during the monsoon season.

  • Aaki (80) sits with her family members in a schoolroom after floodwaters washed her house away. She lost her husband and lives with her son, daughterin-law, grandsons and granddaughters. Aaki has had to move house thirty times because of river erosion, which grabs nearly 25,000 acres of land each year resulting in thousands of landless people in Bangladesh.
  • The people of the low-lying regions of Bangladesh have learnt to be resourceful. A banana raft serves as a makeshift kitchen for Anna (26). During the first phase of flooding, her family stayed at home and adapted to the floodwaters. In the second phase, they had to move on as their land was swept away by a storm surge.
  • Architect-turned-activist Mohammed Rezwan is the inventor of the boat school concept. He grew up in the riverside village of Shidhulai and was unable to go to school during the monsoon season. As a response, he set up the not-for-profit organisation Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, which brings basic health and education facilities to waterside villages via solar-powered boats.
  • Shidulai operates in the flood prone Chalanbeel region of north-western Bangladesh where many people have no access to education, training or modern energy supplies. The boats schools are built in the region and use locally available materials.
  • The roofs of the boat schools are fitted with waterproof layers to maximise protection during the monsoon season. They have solar panels to power the electrical equipment on board.
  • In 2007, floods damaged or destroyed almost 5,000 schools in the low-lying regions of Bangladesh. Mohammed Rezwan spends time with the village students in the boat school which his organisation has built.
  • The boat school moves from one area to another providing an education to the village children on its route. Shidhulai has introduced the first river-based environmental curriculum in the country that teaches children and adults how to protect the environment.
  • Class teacher, Shamima Khatun, examines the papers of students in class three. The solar panels on the boat’s roof power the computer in the corner of the classroom.
  • Many parents are reluctant to let girls travel to distant villages or towns to go to school. The boat schools ensure that girls are still able to receive an education.
  • Even if a family can afford to send a child to school, cultural norms dictate that it would most likely be a son. These girls know how lucky they are to receive an education from the boat schools.
  • Naima Khayun Ety, a student of class four, reads by the light of the solar lamp at her home. Mohammed Rezwan and his team have introduced low cost solar lamps to the villagers. This has had a huge impact, as children are now able to study in the evenings. The reduction in the use of kerosene lamps has also helped to reduce carbon emissions.
  • In Bangladesh, tradition and culture restrict women’s mobility, which can lead to jobs with low economic returns. The boat school library enables women to learn computer skills and to access information on agriculture, biodiversity, climate change, job opportunities, micro enterprise development and human rights.
  • The health clinic boats wind along the rivers, docking at the riverside villages. Families here cannot afford to visit good hospitals in town so they rely heavily on the boat clinic. Village women and children queue up to visit the doctor for examination and advice on their heathrelated problems.
  • The severe isolation of the waterside communities has a dramatic impact on mother and child health, as expectant mothers or mothers with new babies are usually unable to travel to health clinics for advice or treatment. Dr Lalchan Badsha examines a pregnant woman, Rina Begum (20).
  • The boat clinics are equipped with medicines such as antibiotics, antiseptics, antiparasitics and nutritional supplements, all of which are given free to patients as required. Dr Lalchan Badsha examines a young boy.
  • Village women take part in a training session for farmers. They learn how to grow vegetables and manage insects without the need for pesticides. The training enables the women to gain an income selling their produce.
  • Khadiza Begum (21), a village woman, tends to her garden. She has received training from the botanical experts at the boat school about how to maintain her vegetation.
  • The boats pick up and drop off students throughout the day - they are flat-bottomed so they can navigate very shallow water enabling them to reach even the most difficult locations. A boat is taken to its mooring at the end of the day to rest.
  • The local riverside community is heavily reliant on all kinds of boat transport to go about their daily business, as boats are the only means of travel for much of the year.
  • Although the water quality is poor, the rivers have multiple uses for the local community. Village children play in the mud before taking a bath in the river. They enjoy their natural playground - open sky and a place to swim.
  • Farmers wash their cattle in the river at midday. Cows are very important for the farmers as they provide milk and help with ploughing.
| of 23 Play |

The Photographer

Abir Abdullah

Abir Abdullah is a documentary photographer from Bagerhat, Bangladesh. He has a Masters in Marketing from the University of Dhaka and a Diploma in Photojournalism from Pathshala, the South Asian Media Academy. Abir photographs the people around him, whose stories have moved him in some way. He has spent the last few years documenting communities in Bangladesh who have been most affected by climate change. He has won many awards including the prestigious Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography for his photo essay on Bangladeshi freedom fighters. He is also the winner of the Alexia Foundation professional grant, 2013.

Abir’s photo essays have been widely exhibited in Europe, South America, Asia and the US and his photographs have been published in the international press including New York Times, Geo, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Time, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Stern and International Herald Tribune. His work has also been published in the World Press Photo book New Stories and Phaidon Press’s Blink. Currently, Abir is working in the European Pressphoto Agency as the Bangladesh correspondent

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FotoEnvironment 2012 - 2013