VIETNAM Underwater in the Mekong Delta

By Lara Franzen, Emergency Advisor, CARE International Vietnam

Sitting three deep in a glorified canoe, I’m carefully motored across the Plane of Reeds on the Mekong Delta in south west Vietnam.

I’m told that six metres below the water’s surface sit rice fields, land which only a month ago held hope of a buster harvest, with it the offerings of a livelihood and a helping hand out of extreme poverty.

I’m wholly aware of the abnormality of the sights which surround me; the tops of thatched houses, immersed headstones of sacred graveyards and the surreal experience of being at head height with the electrical wires.

I was not prepared for the sheer number of stranded households, completely cut off by oceans of flood waters.  As we drift along, a three generation family meets our gaze with a smile.  Resilient and adaptive, they are finding comfort in maintaining what remains of their normal routine, washing clothes in the flood waters and children fishing from the communal living space.

Those families, whose houses are completely immersed, have been moved to higher ground by the Government but those families with only partially flooded houses are forced to stay where they are.

We drive straight into the living area of a wooden house and find two women in their mid-thirties and five children itching with boredom.  The District People’s Committee has closed all the schools to prevent more drowning from children travelling in the unsafe and unpredictable flood waters.

We squeeze into the one room house and I notice the organised chaos. One corner is filled with piglets, another with baby chicks guarded by their wary mother, another corner is reserved for the storage of cooking utensils and a near empty bag of rice with the remaining area reserved for sleeping.

Just centimetres beneath the haphazard floor boards, water is lapping and a shoe floats by. I wonder if it belongs to the woman and whether I should pluck it from the flood waters?

A three year old boy lies in a deep sleep in a slung hammock, his cheeks are flushed and the mother tells me he is ill with diarrhea. With no latrine and no dry land in reach, the family is defecating in the flood waters.

The sick boy’s family is surviving on rationing a 10kg bag of rice given to them by the local Buddhist pagoda.  I ignorantly asked where they were getting their drinking water from and the mother points to the water beneath us.

A few house visits later, I am told to roll up my cargo pants and hop into the flood water. We are trying to access a cluster of houses in a village in Hau Thanh Dong commune.

After wading through the water, we reach a house which is partially submerged. I am directed to perch on the floor boards and am conscious of not wetting the house further with my drenched lower half.

The house occupants are an elderly disabled couple. Their legs either missing or deformed from bomb blasts during the Vietnam War. Their sinewy faces are marked with age, each wrinkle or crease telling stories of hot days in the sun, trying to make a living in this vulnerable environment. Unable to climb in and out of boats and with no source of income, the elderly couple eats only rice and survives on an occasional allocation of small fish gifted by neighbors in the village.

Too poor to move, these households living in the Mekong Delta are vulnerable to annual flooding.
What is certain is that in 2011 the floods are anything but normal.

Without immediate relief, families like these are at certain risk of food insecurity, hunger and ill health from the poor sanitation and hygiene conditions.

The quantity of water in the world never changes, it is constant. With so much water in South East Asia at the moment, I am baffled by where in the world must be equally as dry as we are wet?

Perhaps this counters the extreme we are currently seeing on our television screens from the Horn of Africa?  Climate change arguments are meaningless to those families stranded now by famine or flood but both share the dilemma of where their next bowl of food will come from.

CARE International in Vietnam is responding and I am proud to be a part of this organisation.