It was nine o'clock in the morning. As soon as the teacher entered the class, the students got up and greeted him. Looking at their faces, the teacher realized there used to be a lot more students in the room. In fact, these days, some of the rows remain completely empty.
The teacher remembered a particularly enthusiastic student named Limon Hawlader, who used to sit on the first bench. He used to be at the top of his class, but it has been months since Limon attended school.
In 2020, Limon had to drop out of class seven. Two severe cyclonic storms – Fani and Bulbul – left him homeless in 2019. As the sea level rises due to climate change, such natural disasters have become more frequent after cyclone Aila. It is because most of the embankments protecting the polders in the southern zone of Bangladesh have broken. Standing in the midst of that destruction, Limon chose to be a boatman to earn a living.
Every year, many students drop out right after natural disasters in the southern part of Bangladesh. Most of them lose their land and home to coastal erosion. They fall into the wells of poverty, migration and child marriage, which lead them to drop out of school. Also, as most schools in these vulnerable areas function both as shelter and school, whenever any natural disaster hits them severely, it disrupts regular classes, compromises the quality of education, and eventually accelerates the rate of students dropping out.
Even though Limon no longer has knowledge about any of his class lessons, he can unerringly predict the spring tide and observe the winds of Rabda River. To this river, he has lost his home and land. Although a little land remains in Lalua, Patuakhali, that is also submerged. Nothing can grow there due to saline water. So, like city dwellers, he now has to buy every essential.
"Back at home, I have elderly parents and unmarried sisters. I am the only wage earner in my family. Who will feed my family and me tomorrow if I go to school and do not earn today? Tell me, who can focus on education on an empty stomach?" asked Limon.
With hunger, when the nightmare of homelessness adds up, basic needs like education will be ignored. According to UNICEF, between 50,000 to 200,000 people are displaced by river erosion every year in Bangladesh. Approximately 60% of girls are married before they turn 18, and 22% are married before turning 15.
Runa Begum from Kakchira, Patharghata is a victim of displacement and child marriage. While sharing her story, she could not recall how many times she has moved her home. Her family has spent around Tk15 lakh to relocate but could not pay a penny toward her education.
"Did I shift home eleven times? Or was it thirteen? I cannot remember, but I can recall schools were never far away from home, wherever I had lived. But I never could afford one. So, I was made to quit school and married off, though I was under stipend. Whether it was my parents or in-laws, all our savings are spent on migration. If you ask, did marriage change my fate? I will say no. Rather, I am exhausted and more miserable now," said teenager Runa in a frustrated voice.
The government has expanded the stipend criteria in the past few years. Yet, Bangladesh is struggling with dropout numbers. There are no specific statistics that reveal the dropout number in the southern part of Bangladesh. Certainly, dropout numbers are higher there than in any other region in Bangladesh. The number becomes noticeable, especially after junior secondary school.
"In Gabura, the dropout rate is around 20%. I am scared that after this pandemic, it might rise to 30%. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if there were no stipend for our students," stated Mina Habibur Rahman, Upazila Academic Supervisor of Gabura in Satkhira, Khulna.
Along with the stipends, an allocation for yearly school maintenance is also essential. In 2018, around 26,573 educational institutions were badly damaged in Bangladesh, and those were beyond recovery. But, this did not happen in one day.
When the warning signals are announced in the coastal zone, locals come to the schools for shelter and leave it in a sorrier state, with worn-out walls, broken tables and benches, clogged washrooms and collapsed water tanks. The school teachers have to fix the mess themselves before resuming classes.
"It has a negative impact on students when they see their institution in a mess, as they also live here in times of danger. So, we have to try hard to wipe that memory off, and that is not easy to do without any restoration budget," said SM Yasminur Rahman Linkon, headteacher of Gabura GLM Secondary School.
Natural disasters impose long breaks during the school year. May to August is the time to for full-fledged academic activities before schools are closed due to board exams. Sadly, natural disasters also occur in this timeline, carry on for months and force students into a long break from education. During that time, their schools, roads, and homes remain submerged too.
"At least one disaster will hit us in May; that is inevitable. After the long breaks caused by disasters, we struggle to bring them back to the classes, which is when a number of our students drop out. Fifteen years ago, the number was decreasing, but I have not noticed any change in the number in the last five years," specified SM Abdul High, Kashimari Ideal School and College.
Although there are barriers, students can be supported to have a normal education with some strategic planning. Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, executive director of non-governmental organisation COAST Trust, suggested the government allow flexibility to coastal belt schools. "The school hours should be adjusted keeping the timing of tides in mind. This way, both students and teachers will be safe and can avoid hazards during the high tides," he opined.
He also suggested that students should be encouraged to take vocational training as it is helpful in ensuring employment.
Though climate change has pushed Bangladesh’s southern zone to the edge, communities fight back to recover from this situation, and the result has started to become evident in some areas.
Dakop Upazila of Khulna division went under water after Aila in 2009 and people suffered badly. But they have turned their life around.
"The local people have nothing to lose to the disasters, so they fight back. And the only way to get over this situation is education. If you visit Dakop now, you will see that the tiny shops in the market turn into coaching centers at night. Now, have a look at their literacy rate. It is 56%, and this is the power of resilience, I think," said Gawher Nayeem Wahra, member secretary of the Disaster Forum.
This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network and was originally published by The Business Standard, Bangladesh, on 13 June 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Students walk to school in the aftermath of one of Bangladesh’s many cyclones / Credit: KM Asad.