Better warnings on the Mekong

A new system planned for Vietnam's main river may help prevent flood fatalities.

The rains started early this year, and the murky Mekong Delta next to Tran Thi Kieu's home rushed up to her waist. She and her husband decided it was time for the family to seek shelter elsewhere.

"Usually we don't move because it doesn't go higher than this," says Mrs. Kieu, pointing to the middle of her thin calf. But this year, the worst flooding in four decades lasted from April to this month, showing that such old-fashioned barometers as calves, knees, and waists can prove devastating.

But many Vietnamese could soon have a better sense of when to seek safer ground with the installation of a radio-based coastal storm warning system for fishing boats at sea.

Funding for the system, a novelty in a place where villagers can be seen banging together flimsy wooden canoes along the riverbanks from which most people here fish, bathe, and do their dishes, was announced on the eve of President Clinton's trip to Vietnam, which ended last week. The Washington-based US Agency for International Development (USAID) will give the Vietnamese government $1.4 million in technical equipment, primarily to install control towers along coastal areas and equip fishing boats with weather radios. The goal: to get residents to rethink the custom of waiting to see how deeply submerged their living rooms get before deciding to move to safe shelter. "We have to have some kind of gauging system that will look not just at the height of the water, but also at the flow," says John Geoghegan, the head of disaster management in Vietnam for the International Federation of the Red Cross, a key actor in distributing USAID's flood assistance. "If we have that system in place, we can ... have up to six hours to evacuate people, rather than 20 minutes."

Some local authorities here have established rudimentary monitoring systems. Often, however, that consists of a staircase at the water's edge, and a watchman who keeps an eye on how many steps the water climbs. It's about as dependable as the Trans' test of calf and knee. "That doesn't tell you anything about the speed of the flow of water, which is so important," adds Geoghegan, an Irish national. "And if it's in the middle of the night and that watchman is snoozing, you can have a situation like last year, when the center of Vietnam was washed away in 24 hours. But if you have an automatic alarm system, you can wake everyone up at any hour."

The program will start in partic-ularly flood-prone provinces in central Vietnam, north of here, where flooding has continued as recent rains dumped up to 6-1/2 feet of water per day over some areas. Early arrival of the monsoons - which normally last from May through October - has killed more than 560 people so far this season, most of them in this low-lying southern region. In 1997, 587 Vietnamese died during typhoon Linda, about 300 of them fishermen who didn't have enough warning to make it back to shore.

US aid to Vietnam is just one sign of the increasing pace of normalization between the two countries. US and other foreign donors say Vietnamese officials have been eager to work with international aid groups. But government officials are still picky about the groups who distribute aid. Everything must be done in coordination with local People's Committees of the Communist Party. Independent domestic aid organizations - in particular some Buddhist groups - were barred from distributing aid during the height of the floods in September.

Vietnam's geography and natural resources make it particularly vulnerable to flooding. Fish and rice are among the biggest exports in this economic up-and-comer eager to join the World Trade Organization, and flooding has damaged both industries. China, the source of the Mekong, has proposed a dam that could ostensibly prevent flash floods. But Vietnam, nursing a historic mistrust of its enormous neighbor to the north, has bristled at the idea of enabling China to turn such a key water source on and off.

Geopolitics, however, seem far away from people living along the Mekong, where houses that look like rickety matchboxes hover just a few inches above the water level. Many others stand drowned and deserted. Lush, leafy trees are half immersed in water. The tops of gravestones jut out from the waterline in the distance, serving as a reminder that the river hasn't run so high in more than a generation.

The Tran family, who moved with other members of their commune, lost their entire rice crop. And "Everyday that we can't go fishing, we don't have income," says Kieu.

But water levels have now begun to subside, and government meteorologists have officially declared the rainy season over for the year. The Trans and their four children may not have anything - neither their thatch-and-wood home nor crops - to which to return. In the future, aid officials hope they will. Another aspect of USAID's assistance here involves distributing more durable construction materials that would allow residents to build foundations that will survive the next flood.

"With steel or concrete, they can rebuild ... and have something to go back to" if they have to evacuate again, says Thomas Dolan, an aid specialist with USAID's office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.

"This is an acknowledgment that people are going to live in a flood-prone area in order to have access to the river, whether we like it or not," says Dolan, surveying the damaged areas by boat under the beating sun that bakes the Mekong Delta after the rains subside. "But if you can build a [few feet higher], and build something that will last, you have that much more protection."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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