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Dubious Floating Climate Shelters in Bangladesh

October 25, 2009

© Abir_Abdullah

Every year, monsoon season sets a better part of South and Southeast Asia adrift in floods, destroying crops and forests, spawning waterborne diseases and marooning or displacing hundreds of thousands of already-struggling low-income families. As if this weren’t enough, the onslaught of climate change now has places like Bangladesh having to cope with floods not only once, but twice a year. While the movement towards reversing global warming continues, there are those who take matters into their own hands, finding solutions to the problems faced by millions of people who simply can’t afford to wait. It seemed that Architect Mohammed Rezwan was one of those change-makers, but unfortunately corruption allegations by several journalists concerning the veracity of his claims have put a potentially positive initiave under suspicion.

©Abir_Abdullah

Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the organization tells its story by recounting Rezwan’s past in a poor, riverside community in Bangladesh, where he felt frustrated as a child when school was cancelled during the monsoon floods. “If children can’t go to school because of poor communication, then the school should go to them”. Basically, if it floods, then makes things float. In 1998 he founded the non-profit Shidhulai Swanivar, which means self-reliance, his mission to transform the backwater community of Chalan Beel into a communications network with a series of eco-boats equipped as clinics, schools, libraries, sustainable farms and recharging stations.

© Abir_Abdullah

Rezwan purportedly had nearly 90 country boats refurbished into solar-powered vessels that claimed to serve up to 90,000 families with facilities devoted to learning, sustainable agriculture, healthcare and climate change.

The Daily Star reported in 2007:

“The breakdown of which is given on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website – 15 boats were floating classrooms, 24 boats were floating libraries with 1500 books and four PV-powered computers with Internet access in each, 10 boats were ‘mobile education and information centres’ with Internet access and DVD/CD players and projector also used as agriculture training centres and 30 boats were dedicated battery charging stations, and nine boats had healthcare and ‘other services’.”

When we interviewed him on August 4, 2007 for our cover story Rezwan said that ‘earlier in the year’ he did have 88 boats but had ‘merged’ some of the projects and brought the number of boats down to 35. The breakdown he gave proved unsatisfactory: 12 libraries, 9 floating schools, 4 agriculture training centres and 10 other boats were used for transportation and ‘solid waste management’ activities. He did not elaborate what ‘solid waste management’ activities were carried out on the boats.”

© Abir_Abdullah

© Abir_Abdullah

© Abir_Abdullah

© Abir_Abdullah

© Abir_Abdullah

© Abir_Abdullah

The question lies whether Rezwan’s claims are in fact, based on real facts and whether his organization is working outside public interest or not. His evasion of journalists regarding the situation isn’t very promising. Certainly, a project like this has all the potential to make lasting, positive change. It’s thanks to local, social entrepreneurs that thousands of families can count on immediate and efficient solutions that not only save lives when disaster hits, but empowers them with the knowledge and tools they need to design their own future. Let’s hope Rezwan shapes up or ships out.

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Despite all this, the Shidhulai project has received awards from the United Nations Environment and Development programs, among others, and has recently become the subject of the documentary Easy Like Water directed by Glenn Baker, which was invited to participate in the Good Pitch forum at IFP’s Independent Film Week in New York this past September. In partnership with the U.N. Environmental Programme, an excerpt of the film is scheduled to be presented at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December.

Goes to show that all of us, including Bill and Melinda Gates, should do their homework first when it comes to supporting or reporting projects with humanitarian claims, no matter how great they look and sound.

All photos © Abir_Abdullah

thx to a tweet or two by @casinclair

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