There are 20 million people in Bangladesh living in villages only accessible by boat. Many of these people have no reliable electricity supply with all the negative impact that has on education, healthcare and access to information. These problems are especially acute in the remote Chalanbeel region. Many of the inhabitants are landless labourers. There is no electricity grid. School attendance is bad with teacher shortages and reluctant parents. Only the rivers offer reliable access to the area.
Any solution to Chalanbeel’s difficulties had to be portable. And it had to float. Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a local charity, provided just such a solution – a fleet of boats using on-board solar power to offer a range of services from classrooms and libraries to computers, mobile phones and even battery charging stations for the portable solar lamps they distribute.
The emphasis is on education, particularly of the young who would otherwise miss out.But is also about connecting people to their world and increasing their potential. Training is given in sustainable agriculture, a solar lamp has been developed for nighttime fishing, women’s education extends to offering business loans.
This is not just a project about technology, ideal though solar power is as an energy source. It is about providing the most appropriate services in an integrated, practical way. For example educational film are shown in the evening for labourers who have spent all day working in the fields – obvious perhaps, except previously lack of electricity made such an idea impractical. Indeed one service very often demands another. Education increases expectation. Which is why by 2009 Shidhulai had 90 boats bringing services to 90,000 families. New services include solar powered early flood warning devices, floating flood shelters and floating gardens.
With education comes confidence. As a resident put it so eloquently. “After this library came to our village, we started to believe in ourselves.”