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Drowning in Vietnam increases due to climate change and the pandemic

In October of 2020, Central Vietnam experienced unprecedented relentless storms. The typical rainy season usually only lasts for about 2 months with an average of 5 or 6 storms. Last year, the country saw 14 typhoons and tropical storms cause extreme flooding in many regions taking over 200 lives.

Graham Buckley, founder of Hue Help, says “The last two years, there was no flooding at all. There was hardly a rainy season at all in any way. Then last year, it’s the worst one that we’ve seen in nearly 15 years of working here.”

Hue Help is a non-profit organisation founded by Graham in 2006 in the Thua Thien Hue province. Their aim is to improve the health, education and future of Vietnamese children in need. In connection with the Department of Children’s Affairs, Hue Help devotes most of their resources to training local school teachers to become swim instructors. 

Vietnam leads with the highest annual number of child drownings in Southeast Asia. It’s also the cause for the most child deaths in Vietnam. 

As the climate crisis intensifies, natural disasters like those experienced last year will become more severe and erratic. These events highlight the necessity of taking action for the environment and preparing people living in high risk areas with safety and survival skills.

Besides climate change, other factors are contributing to the flooding seen in Vietnam’s more rural areas. Hydroelectric dams are being built in the forests leading to deforestation in those areas. This is making flooding and landslides more common. Since the dams were constructed, more rural areas are experiencing increased flooding rather than the urban areas like in years past. Those living in rural areas are less likely to have access to education and swimming skills. Even one of the schools Hue Help works with was flooded and out of commission for a whole month. 

The closure of schools due to the pandemic on top of an abnormally intense rainy season has caused a noticeable increase in the number of drownings in 2020. 

Hue Help worked with their partners to develop national level guidance for parents and people looking after children during lockdown. The goal is to keep children safe from drowning and to highlight the increased risk as they are more likely to be unsupervised while schools are closed. 

In addition to learning how to swim, Graham says their students also learn land based rescue skills, “We put down big blue mats in the classroom. And they practice rescuing each other from the ‘water’. It’s quite an interactive sort of fun session, but also includes videos on flooding, what to do if they see floodwater and the risks of playing in and around it as well.”

SwimTayka partnered with HueHelp to not only provide swimming lessons and volunteers, but also water stewardship education to their instructors. 

All of Hue Help’s swimming lessons occur in open water, which is very different from many other organisations who would rather teach kids in a pool for safety reasons. But in Hue, there are so many natural water sources that it just makes sense for them. Because of the number of waterways, it’s even more important to teach these kids how to swim and the importance of clean water. 

Graham believes that as more and more people are swimming, it is definitely motivating the community to keep the water clean. 

Cảm Ơn Dòng Hương is a local grassroots organisation in Hue that coordinates with local volunteers of all ages to clean the rivers and streams in their community. On their Facebook page, you can find photos of children enjoying their book club by the side of the river then taking a walk, bag in hand, ready to clean up the rubbish they find. 

“I think these activities kind of go really, really well together. Because if there’s people enjoying the river and swimming in the river, then they’re not going to stand for the pollution. And they educate people when they come down to the riverbank about picking up the rubbish.”

Cảm Ơn Dòng Hương and Hue Help joined forces to train their staff and volunteers in water safety. As they work around the rivers, they now know safe rescue skills and water safety awareness.

Hue Help is looking forward to being able to continue their work within the community at full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has passed. They also hope to do more environmental education within the communities in which they are present but they are currently in need of a local expert or instructor. 

In the meantime they started a fundraiser for children and families who were affected by the floods and are in need of urgent support. They’ve been able to provide emergency relief to 220 families so far. Funds raised will also go towards those very same communities through more education programs like water stewardship and drowning prevention as increasingly dangerous flood seasons become their reality.