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Turning the tide against child drownings in Vietnam

It’s an alarming statistic. More than 2,000 children drown every year in Vietnam and it’s the leading cause of child death. But one man is on a mission to turn this figure around and with his organisation he’s already making progress.

Meet Graham Buckley, whose love of the water turned into a passion to teach children to swim.

“I’ve always loved swimming, was in a club for a while and had a part-time job as a pool lifeguard in Saltburn in North Yorkshire where I grew up,” he says.

Graham Buckley

“When I went to University of Sussex in Brighton, I started working as a beach lifeguard there. It was in the uni holidays that I began volunteering in Vietnam through the Student Volunteering Network. 

“I was supposed to teach swimming, but due to permissions that wasn’t possible. So I ended up as a volunteer teaching assistant in Hue, which I have to admit I was absolutely terrible at, but I did get to learn a lot about Vietnam and the drowning situation in the country.”

Drowning due to flooding accounts for a proportion of the deaths, but there is so much water in Vietnam, with people living by or on the water – lakes, paddies, canals, the sea – that this staggering statistic is largely attributable to children drowning when they are playing in or by the water.

So in 2006, while he was still at university, Graham launched Hue Help, based in Thua Thien Hue province. 

Initially, its main focus was supporting Hue Children’s Shelter, but when he graduated Graham was able to spend more time in Vietnam and progress the organisation’s work. Since 2011, Hue Help has run swimming safety programmes, so they are now in their tenth year.

“There was a real gap in swimming teaching provision,” says Graham. “When we started there was a Scottish charity called Swim Vietnam, who we still work closely with, but that was all. Even now, there are many provinces where nothing much is happening.”

How do the Hue Help programmes work

The model is simple but effective. Hue Help train primary school teachers to become swim instructors, and they go on to deliver swimming lessons to the children in their schools. The lessons can be in open water – such as the beach or lagoon, or rivers – as well as, increasingly, in pools.

“We select schools which want to work with us, we pick three or four teachers per school, and over a five day course we help them learn how to deliver lessons. We get a lot of support from the Swimming Teachers’ Association, who help us out with equipment and who have sent people over to help us.”

The course covers skills including survival, treading water, floating and safe rescue. “There is a significant problem with kids jumping in to help others. There was a case in another province just over a year ago where eight children all drowned at once, because they wanted to help each other.”

Fortunately, access to swimming lessons is improving in Vietnam. There is a national drowning prevention initiative run by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs which is working in ten provinces where the incidence of drowning is particularly high. Graham and Hue Help are working closely with the programme as consultants, helping with teacher training and water safety advice.

Covid has not had too much of an impact on Hue Help’s work, because the country contained the disease so well, largely achieved by closing the borders and enforcing a robust quarantine regime and contact tracing.

That said, in the early days of the pandemic schools were closed, which meant some programmes had to be postponed. The climate also means the programmes can only operate over the summer of June, July and August, avoiding the flood season.

Noticeably, there were more drownings when schools were closed, reinforcing – if it was needed – how important the work is that Graham and the team do.

Linking up with SwimTayka

As well as practical swimming lessons, Hue Help runs classroom-based water safety education, with interactive sessions where the children learn about the risks of open water, how to put on a life jacket and other essentials skills.

“We wanted to include in this some environmental education. Sadly, we have noticed over the ten years we’ve been operating the swim programmes that it is harder and harder to find suitable open water training sites, because of pollution. We believe the more people swim, the more they will want to protect the environment – there is a clear link – and this is where SwimTayka have really helped, in terms of teaching children water stewardship.”

Graham hopes SwimTayka volunteers will come over again in 2021 to deliver the environmental message. In the meantime, his quest to teach teachers to teach children goes on.

If you are interested in volunteering with SwimTayka, or learning more about the work we do and how you can support us, please get in touch.