Bangladesh schools battle water-logging

Students and teachers in southwestern Bangladesh, where chronic flooding known as water-logging closes schools annually, are forced to find creative ways to carry on learning, citizens and experts say.

Interruptions to a child’s education due to emergencies can have “serious” implications, say experts, who point to the impact of gaps in schooling and the long-term dangers of schools that are decaying from water damage.

While improvising through disaster has helped, more is needed to keep schools functioning, say experts.

Elias Hassan, 17, was in class when a major water-logging period began in 2007. Years later water continues to inundate his school in Maniranpur sub-district in Jessore District for at least six months of the year. “We organize tutors to come and hold classes [in our homes or shelters], and the teachers do some, too,” he told IRIN.

“And this continues every year now - we don’t have a permanent solution so we are still using small activities to make up for school not being open for the full year,” he said.

Water-logging is most severe in areas where the land is divided by raised earthen embankments that can trap tidal and rain water from receding, leading to protracted flooding.

Millions of people in southwest Bangladesh are affected, in some cases for up to 10  years. Farms have been hit, interrupting agricultural livelihoods.

Shushilan, a local NGO, reported in October 2013 that 21,000 families in Satkhira District (south of Jessore) have been affected this year.

Rooftop classes

“When the water gets into the classroom, we hold classes on the roof of the building. And when it gets so high we can’t expect the students to access the building at all, we hold informal classes with them in places in the village we can access by boat or bamboo bridges,” Deepak Choudhary, a teacher at a secondary school in Jessore District’s Bhabodaho village, told IRIN.

According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Bangladesh, nearly a quarter of the schools in Tala sub-district, the most flood and water-logging vulnerable area of Satkhira District, have been affected by water-logging so far this year.

“During the water-logging periods we see a 50 percent decrease in attendance rate,” said Chamal Nundi, principal of a primary school in Tala. His school has been water-logged for at least half the year over the past decade, he added.

“The parents are afraid to let their children come to school because of the water, they want to watch them all the time,” he said, echoing research published by the UK-based Natural Sciences Research Council in 2008 that said: “Mothers in the [water-logging] affected area live in a state of mental trauma in anticipation of sudden drowning of a child.”

“We tried holding classes on the roof of the building,” said Shishi Biswas, a primary schoolteacher in Jessore District. “But people also took shelter up on the roof of the school, so we were in competition for space. But how could we tell them to leave if they had nowhere to go?”

According to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, “wherever the school building is not submerged, these tend to become the ‘front-line’ flood shelters for uprooted families,” which can suspend education activities in those facilities.

Structural damage risk

According to Nundi, the principal in Tala, even when the water recedes, anywhere from December to March, danger lingers.

"Fewer and fewer children come back every year after the water-logging ends because of buildings visibly crumbling"

“Over the years and years of water-logging, the school building structure is getting damaged. This is not a safe place for children even when the school is dry,” he said.

“Fewer and fewer children come back every year after the water-logging ends because of buildings visibly crumbling.”

Anjana Mangalagiri, education chief at UNICEF Bangladesh, said breaks in the school year contribute to “increasing dropout rates and decreasing the chances of children completing the full primary school cycle.

“Making sure that schools are resilient against natural disasters… will help prevent interruptions to schooling or ensure its quick resumption in the event of a disaster,” she added.

Turning a problem into a solution

According to Plan International, school officials in several areas are mitigating the effects of disasters on education by improving school building infrastructure and incorporating disaster risk reduction into student activities.

Experts say sustaining education in the face of disasters is not only crucial, but can also buoy general community safety.

“While education systems are greatly affected by disasters, they are also part of the solution,” Julia Heiss, a programme specialist at the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), told IRIN from Paris.

“Through good planning for DRR [disaster risk reduction] in education, schools can turn into disaster safe places… Wise disaster preparedness in schools can also help education systems recover faster after a disaster,” she said.

kk/pt/cb