Cyclone shelter schools rise to the challenge in climate change ground zero

31 January 2023

Bhola Island' Bangladesh' has its name in the history books for a night in November 1970 that saw a storm surge swamp the entire 70 kilometre length of the island' drowning around 500'000 souls in what remains the single most fatal environmental catastrophe in recorded history.

Fifteen metres under the water level that the storm surged to that night' an Australian charity' headed by CQUniversity academic Olav Muurlink' is building and running schools that not only are designed to be above typical storm surge height' but' this Australian summer' will include three schools that even on that fateful November night would have been above water level … inside cyclone shelters.

The three 'new' schools are just three of 50 schools and 17 kindergartens that the charity cooperation in development (better known as Fred Hyde Schools) have in fact been operating on sites on the unstable mud island that is Bhola in the firing line of climate-change related attack.

"We pick sites that are generally not suited to government schools – places vulnerable to erosion from the mega-rivers of the region' places where there are no paved roads for example' and these are exactly the sites that the World Bank were looking for when they began building a cluster of escape routes for locals if we had a major storm surge again'" Associate Professor Muurlink explained.

"Our schools are built about a metre up from the high tide level from very basic materials: we use bricks that are actually made of local mud baked into bricks' and then broken into 'gravel' that's then turned into concrete' which in turn is poured into simple moulds' to make concrete posts.

"We then use traditional Aussie wire twitches to secure the roof timbers onto the posts' making a construction that is cheap but has not once been beaten by cyclonic wind."

Strong as these structures are' they are very basic with no airconditioning' no electricity' and many only have mud floors.

"We try to keep the cost of our schools well under the $10'000 and then improve them as we get funds'" Associate Professor Muurlink said.

"So when the World Bank approached us with an offer to build these multi-storey concrete monsters on our school grounds' we absolutely leapt at it. The deal is that they build the shelters so that the third floor is purpose-built for a primary school. Toilets' water' solar powered electricity – by the standards of what our students are used to' this is the Hilton."

With the 2023 school year now underway' three of the new cyclone-shelter schools are now housing kids from the charity's schools.

Associate Professor Muurlink recently returned from three weeks in the delta' an experience he described as "HR on steroids".

"My role is unfortunately not much to do with hands-on education of kids' and mostly just sitting on motorbikes' speedboats and rickshaws … and chairs.

"This Bangladeshi winter we counted an extraordinary 250 individual face-to-face meetings' ranging from 10-minute interviews with candidates for new teaching jobs' to hours-long meetings with legal teams and government officials."