Sustainable Energy for All: Challenges and Adaptation in Bangladesh
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On Thursday 20 October 2011, the Equator Initiative hosted a presentation by Mr. Mohammed Rezwan on the work of Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha. This organisation won the Equator Prize in 2006 in recognition of its work in providing sustainable energy and services to remote rural communities in flood-prone districts of north-western Bangladesh. Rezwan, founder and CEO of Shidhulai, gave a comprehensive overview of the successes of this outstanding initiative in meeting the challenges of climate change and energy poverty.

The presentation was introduced by Dr. Charles McNeill, Senior Policy Advisor, UNDP Environment and Energy Group, who welcomed those attending from a variety of backgrounds, including the Small Grants Programme, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and UN-REDD, and those working on community-based adaptation to climate change and sustainable energy. Stephen Gitonga, Policy Advisor on sustainable energy (UNDP) then spoke briefly about the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has designated 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, raising awareness of the need to meet targets of achieving universal access to modern energy services, doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and doubling the share of renewables in the energy mix by 2030.

Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha (roughly translated, "small village self-reliance organisation") demonstrates that local innovation has a key role to play in meeting these targets. The initiative was the brainchild of architect Mohammed Rezwan, who set out to address the challenges of heavy annual flooding in the low-lying and densely populated Chalan Beel region of Bangladesh. Among other effects of this flooding, damage caused to schools meant that children could lose up to three months of education every year. In 2007, 330 schools were destroyed and more than 4,000 were damaged by severe flooding. The extreme marginalisation of riverbank communities trapped by floodwaters also meant decreased access to other services, including healthcare and agricultural training, while these communities' food security was under threat from crops being washed away.


Beginning a decade ago with a grant of US$500, Rezwan designed a boat that would act as "half school bus, half school house". Travelling from village to village, a school boat picks up students from riverbank villages. Classes are then taught on board the boat, with up to thirty children at a time in Grades I to IV. Boat classrooms are equipped with laptop computers and other equipment powered by solar panels. The idea was highly successful, leading to further grants from a number of foundations that allowed the idea to be rapidly scaled up. Today, Shidhulai has a fleet of 54 boats, including twenty school boats, ten floating libraries, five mobile health clinics, and five agricultural training boats. The organisation has served over 90,000 agrarian families, bringing a multitude of services to communities on the frontline of climate change.

Library boats provide the facilities of a standing library, carrying 1,500 books, computers with internet access, printers, and mobile phones. Health clinic boats provide free medication and basic healthcare to more than 300 people each day. Training boats provide on-board training sessions and evening presentations to inform farmers about sustainable farming techniques. These sessions also provide information on affordable renewable energy technologies developed by Shidhulai, such as the paddle pump and solar lantern.

In addition to its innovatory boat design, Shidhulai has also pioneered the "Surya Hurricane" lantern: traditional kerosene lanterns are converted to solar power through the installation of a rechargeable battery. These can then be recharged on board boats at an affordable cost.

Food security has been improved through the development of floating gardens: three-tier bamboo frame constructions that house soil beds for crops and a solar-powered chicken coop. This innovation allows riverside farmers to grow crops safe from the threat of flooding.


Results have been impressive: school boats currently serve around 1,600 students, with the library boats accessed by 15,000 people a year. Children's enrolment in education has increased by 40%, while the dropout ratio has been reduced by 45%. The health clinic boats have provided information on issues such as sanitation, HIV/AIDS, unintended pregnancies, reproductive rights and early marriage issues. Sanitary latrine usage has increased by 80%, while early marriage rates have fallen by 75%. Due to the adoption of new farming techniques, agricultural productivity has increased by 70% in riverside farming communities. On-board training sessions and evening presentations have encouraged farmers to cultivate a variety of crops outside the normal growing season; annual incomes of farmers have increased by 55%.

Shidhulai's work to confront the challenges of climate change and energy poverty has been recognised by multiple international awards apart from the Equator Prize, including the UNEP Sasakawa Prize and an Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy, while the organisation's solar lantern enterprise won the SEED Award in 2009. Two of Rezwan's designs – Shidhulai's boat model and the "Surya Hurricane" lantern – are currently on display at the UN Headquarters building as part of the Design with the Other 90%: CITIES exhibition, organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

The Equator Initiative is deeply grateful to Mohammed Rezwan for his presentation. To learn more about Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, follow the links below:

Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha's profile (Equator Initiative)

Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha website

'A Floating Future' – a short documentary produced for Foreign Exchange TV (PBS)

Rezwan's PowerPoint presentation