On the flood-prone river islands of Bangladesh, everything is portable. The islands, known as “chars” (pronounced chors), are formed of silt and sand carried down from the Himalayas by the Brahmaputra river. Global warming is accelerating the melting of glaciers, increasing the annual floods. To survive in this ever-shifting landscape, residents of the islands have learned how to be mobile, building houses – and schools – that can be moved at a moment’s notice.
The chars are constantly eroding and re-forming; they have an average lifespan of just 12 years. The average char-dweller will move 25-30 times in his lifetime, either because of erosion, or floods which in bad years can kill hundreds of people and threaten thousands more by destroying the crops they depend on.
It’s mid-November, four months after this year’s floods subsided, and Jamila Begum is still teaching her students in a shed behind her home. The site where her school once stood is now a 5-metre high cliff of sand that drops down into the waters of the Brahmaputra, the world’s 10th-biggest river. Fortunately, Jamila was able to move her school as the river was rising.
The school, run by the Bangladeshi NGO Friendship, was designed to be dismantled and moved quickly and easily. Like the char-dwellers’ reed and corrugated-iron houses, the NGO’s 78 primary schools on the chars are modular. Sections are bolted together, meaning they can easily be unbolted in a matter of hours, and transported by ox-cart or boat. It’s thanks to this construction style that Jamila will soon have her school back.
“When the floods come, they come suddenly”
We have to make our schools portable because we know floods will come. And when they do, they come suddenly. That’s why the building can be dismantled very quickly. All the schools on the chars are built this way. Our school was first built in 2006, at another site on the Chowmohon char, about two kilometres from here. But then there was a big flood in 2008, and they dismantled it. It took about two or three hours to dismantle the building. You just need an electric drill and you unscrew the bolts. But then we needed two or three days to move all the pieces to the new location and another two or three days to rebuild it.
In Rafiqul’s 4th-grade class, all of the children have had to move homes at least once because of the island’s constantly shifting shoreline. One has had to move four times during her 11 years.
“Our new school will be ready soon, but we don’t know when”
When we saw that the floodwaters were rising, we decided to move the school before the waters got too high. I contacted the Friendship central office and they sent labourers to dismantle it. Some of the equipment and structures were taken to my house. Some of it went to the village where they’re going to rebuild it. I’ve heard that they’ve started building the plinth. Our new school will be ready soon, but we don’t know when.
The “plinth” is a foundation that elevates a house by 1-3 metres. It can take 30 people a week to complete, but could save a building from being washed away.
Right now the students are in a shed behind my house. At my school everything had its place. It was organised. Here everything is just thrown together. But I’m a teacher and a teacher’s job is to teach whatever the conditions are. Usually I have a map of the world in the classroom, but not here. It’s there to teach the children about other countries in the world, but I’m like the other teachers here on the chars – I don’t know about the mainland or the capital Dhaka or the rest of the world, so I can’t answer their questions. Also, they don’t ask much because they don’t really have any curiosity about the rest of the world. After 7th grade if someone is curious about the outside world, they’ll go to the mainland to study.
Jamila is unsure of her age because births, marriages and deaths are not registered on the chars. Government agencies – including the police – have no permanent presence on the islands and are seldom seen there. No one knows how many people live on the chars either. Friendship’s Enamul Haque estimates there are 400-450 chars in the Brahmaputra, 250-300 of them inhabited, with populations ranging from 500 to 10,000 on the largest chars.