Bhola Island became the scene of history’s single worst environmental catastrophe when, in 1970, a cyclone hit and 500 000 lives were swept away in a single night by a 15-metre storm surge.
Story by Divyan Ahimaz and photos by Fred Hyde Schools and LuAnne Cadd.
50 years later, the single biggest killer of children is still drowning. The death rate in Bangladesh for children 1-4 years old is a horrifying 86.3 per 100 000 per year. In this setting operates one of Bangladesh’s oldest education projects, the Co-operation in Development (Australia) Incorporated’s primary school project, which has built over 60 schools and kindergartens in Bhola over the last 30 years.
Each of the schools is an island, built up on ‘high ground’ made by hand from mud dug from canals and a myriad of ponds that dot the landscape. The schools draw children from the country’s poorest families, often families made homeless by erosion by the mighty south-bound rivers.
They are keen to come - trudging through mud and thigh-deep high tides during the wet season - and the children outperform graduates of other schools in the region at the government-run secondary school entrance exams.
'MAF’s planes take us straight from Dhaka through to the river off Bhola, and in the process save us around 8 or 10 hours—a working day—each way.’ Dr Muurlink
However, these children are literally dying to get to school. In the last year alone, three youngsters in the school community have died either at school or getting to school - out of a total enrolment of 11,000.
‘Apart from the deaths we had some close runs - a boy going across one of the bamboo bridges to get a snack fell into the water and would have drowned if one of the elder boys hadn’t seen it happen,’ says the charity’s head of country in Bangladesh, Associate Professor Olav Muurlink, ‘and another girl ran out of school, slipped and lost consciousness in one of the ponds outside the school doors’.
Building bridges to education
Dr Muurlink, whose ‘day job’ is as an academic at Central Queensland University in Australia spends much of his spare time in Bhola, meeting with the charity’s 180 staff and visiting each of the schools. For Dr Muurlink, time is of critical importance, and that’s where MAF’s work really comes into its own.
‘We rely largely on volunteers to get some of the key management work done, and all of us have day jobs, so saving even a single day in travel time makes a huge difference. MAF’s planes take us straight from the domestic terminal in Dhaka through to the river off Bhola, and in the process save us around 8 or 10 hours—a working day—each way.’
The charity is focusing on filling in ponds close to school and literally building bridges between schools and populations of school-age children.
‘There is no question of fencing off swimming pools here to stop drownings, as we would do in Australia,’ says Dr Muurlink. Instead, the charity is focusing on filling in ponds close to school and literally building bridges between the areas where schools operate and populations of school-age children. For example in one case, in a public-private partnership between the charity and two union councils on Bhola, a ‘land bridge’ and a wooden-concrete construction costing less than £500 will mean that around 100 children will be able to get safely to school this coming monsoon.
‘It didn’t rain a drop of rain for the five weeks I was there,’ says Dr Muurlink, ‘but once the monsoon ramps up you can measure the rain in metres not millimetres, and we hope to be ready.’