The Reality of Floating Schools

The school year is something most of us take for granted, with lessons continuing throughout all seasons and designated breaks for vacation celebrations. But in some parts of the world, natural disasters force abrupt school closures on a regular basis and the impacts of climate change are only expected to make things worse.

But in flood-prone regions across the globe, innovative architects and communities have been collaborating to create “floating schools” to assist children in continuing their education, no matter how hard the rain hits. While it might not all be smooth sailing, these prototype and pilot programs for floating schools are indicating towards a promising future.

The Floating Schools of Bangladesh

Floating schools

Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries and sprawls across a delta formed at the meeting point of numerous major rivers. Its low-lying position not only makes it vulnerable to flooding, but also the ever-increasing effects of climate change. Flooding is at its worst during the July to October rainy season, making some roads impassable and causing many schools to shut down.

“Floating schools” may not offer a solution to climate change, but they do allow children to continue learning during periods of flooding. The Unicef representative for Bangladesh says: “We know from experience, getting children back into a school environment as soon as possible is the best way to help them recover from the shock and destruction of a natural disaster”.

Floating schools

Which is just what Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha is trying to achieve. Its founder, Mohammed Rezwan, grew up in the northwest of Bangladesh and experienced first hand the impact flooding has on children’s education. Seeing friends around him denied an education due to natural conditions out of their hands, he thought “if the children cannot come to school because of floods, then the school should go to them by boat” .

After graduating from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology with an architecture degree, he went on to found Shidhulai in 1998, calling on organizations to assist him in building his first “floating school” in 2002. He’s since received grants from the US’ Global Fund for Children and the Levi’s Foundation (which has a significant number of factories in Bangladesh), together with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This has not only allowed him to build more boats, but also install solar power, setup a central library for the schools and buy computers.

The “floating schools” are modified traditional Bangladeshi noka boats, with weatherproof roofs to withstand the country’s heavy monsoon rains, held up by arched metal beams. They have the capacity to hold 30 children and a teacher, with students being picked up at designated points for their lessons 6 days a week.

Shidhulai plans to build 100 more boats in the next five years, to add to the 20 schools, 10 libraries, 7 adult education centers and 5 floating health clinics that are already serving the community. In addition to reaching out to more than 100,000 people, the organization also employs more than 200 staff, including boat drivers and teachers.

The Floating Schools of Nigeria

Floating schools

Lagos is one of the world’s mega-cities, spanning numerous islands across the Lagos Lagoon. Rapid urbanization, together with the impacts of climate change, are creating urgent issues when it comes to housing and the availability of land. The community of Makoko is almost completely waterlogged and at constant risk of flooding, with around 250,000 people living in makeshift stilt houses and commuting by canoe. While some city officials wanted to tear the community down to make way for more lucrative real estate ventures, Nigerian-born architect Kunlé Adeyemi came up with a different solution, creating sustainably-designed floating structures that offered access to both fresh water and power.

His first project was a “floating school”, built by the local residents using plastic drums to float a locally-sourced wooden deck, with solar panels to provide power and rainwater collected. It was designed to adapt to changing water levels and (hopefully) withstand the heavy storms that impact Lagos during the rainy season.

Floating Schools

The three-story structure had the capacity to hold around 100 students, with the community of Makoko embracing the concept and the opportunity of free education brought to its children, even if the Lagos state government reportedly labeled it “illegal” .

Three years since the project was started and after 7 months of intense use by the community of Makoko, the “floating school” had already been decommissioned and scheduled for demolition when it abruptly collapsed during heavy rains in 2016, along with many surrounding houses. An improved version was already in the pipeline from the Makoko community at the time of collapse, and Adeyemi remains excited to see what evolves from his high-profile “floating school” prototype. It was shortlisted for the Designs of the Year awards in 2014 and is hoped to inspire communities in other seasonally-flooded regions across Africa.

The Floating Schools of Colombia

During Colombia’s rainy season, the rivers around the town of Sempegua in the country’s north burst their banks, bringing education to a standstill. That was before the construction of Latin America’s first “floating school” – the brainchild of Andres Uribe and Lina Catano who wanted to build a school that could not only float on water, but also be ground on land during the dry season. The United Nations Development Fund, the European Union and Colombia’s National Disaster Risk Management and University Eafit were all involved, helping this dream become a reality

Uribe and Catano’s bi-functional structure is anchored to two-meter high posts and designed to naturally rise with the currents, making it a permanent solution to a seasonal problem. The three-room school has the capacity for 60 children, but it’s expected that around 400 families in the village will eventually benefit from the idea

The town of Sempegua doesn’t want to just limit it to schools, but also construct bi-functional houses, health centers, sports centers and shopping areas. In doing so it would allow the community to maintain permanent dwellings and continue to be productive throughout periods of flooding. The project will also address the lack of potable water in the village and sewage systems, together with improving access to electricity. Catano explains this is not just about one school in one town: “We want this to become a project on how to adapt to climate change, not just for Colombia but for Latin America” .