From ships to schools with local innovation

To build longer-lasting, quality learning centres for refugee children in Bangladesh, UNICEF identified a construction solution steeped in local innovation.

Two girls smiling from an open window
25 June 2020

Since 2017, the refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh have become home to almost one million Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar, just over half of whom are children. By December 2019, over 219,000 children aged 4 to 14 years were enrolled in 2,500 UNICEF-supported learning centres, which were initially housed in tents. These soon gave way to bamboo structures that are susceptible to fire and damage from monsoons and cyclones, requiring regular maintenance and leading to higher operational costs. More robust structures that could withstand the tests of time and nature without the need for frequent repair were needed.

The UNICEF Bangladesh Country Office looked for a viable local alternative and identified a construction technique that uses steel from end-of-life ships disposed in the Bay of Bengal as source material for the building. The recycled steel replaces the previously used non-durable materials and can be maintained by the population, making it environmentally and socially sustainable.

Modular approach

The key to the success of this solution is its modular concept whereby the different elements can be built off-site by one contractor and then quickly assembled in the refugee camp. This reduces the risks and hazards associated with the population density and restricted space in the camps. 

The modular approach promotes efficient procurement through the establishment of long-term arrangements (LTAs), three of which were issued in 2019. The LTAs help introduce standards and regulations in the industry, serving as safeguards for workers to support safety guidelines and insurance.

The steps taken in 2019 – identifying needs, approving designs and setting up LTAs – mean that swift action can be taken in 2020 to work on 3,300 new learning centres for refugee children in Cox’s Bazar, giving them a safe and secure space where they can learn and play. 

The impressive project will bring to scale a sustainable construction solution from local experience through recycling of obsolete material. This exemplifies a sensible approach that can be replicated in other sectors and countries.