Living With the Floods


By Richard Wecker – CARE International in Vietnam

December 20

Nguyen Van Ngat lives with his wife, Le Thi San, and their four daughters on the edge of Tra Su national landscape reservation, near Van Giao commune, Tánh Bian district.

The tree-lined road to their home remains some four metres below the surface of what is now a lake. Water levels have remained high for six weeks after the peak of the floods in An Giang province, Vietnam.

Ngat and his neighbours had the experience and foresight to elevate their wooden floors in preparation for this flood season. Their homes are sitting just above the water, propped up by makeshift stilts. "We were aware the floods would be high this season so we helped each other to prepare," he says. Without knowing the signs to look for and without taking heed of warnings, the family of six would otherwise be stranded, homeless.

At first glance, this isolated cluster of floating houses look purpose built, however all of inhabitants tread lightly as the renovations were rushed and the support beams were weakened by termites prior to the floods. "We need to reinforce our house as it may collapse at anytime but we have no money to do this," Ngat says. Many of the houses in his area were evacuated before the peak of the floods. Some residents have returned but many cannot live in their house due to risk it may collapse.

Ngat usually works as a hire-labourer, mainly farming rice, however his usual employers have no work for him. Seasonal flooding is normal in this part of the world but this year the water has reached record highs, destroying a large amount of the season's crop and creating a risk of poor people going hungry since they are the most affected. There are many people in Ngat's position, who is now faced with the challenge of feeding himself and his family for the next 3-6 months until floodwaters recede and the next season comes around.

Ngat usually fishes to supplement the family's income but the wind and tides are in motion, unsettling what might otherwise be a surrounding bounty for his family.

Furthermore, his fishing tackle is old and worn and his boat has holes in it. What Mr Ngat might catch on a good day might fetch 20-30.000 VND (US$1-1.50) at the market, which could buy just enough rice for the whole family of six. He expects the calm to return in December but he insists: "the weather has been unpredictable in recent years and no one can say what the future will bring".

Ngat's wife San suffers from chronic heart disease and so the eldest daughter stays at home to take care of her and the younger siblings. Occasionally she will also go out fishing with her father, leaving the house early in the morning to return around lunch time.

Of the four girls only one goes to school. She had been faring the floodwaters by boat with no safety gear and would take raw rice from the family's reserve rations for her teacher to prepare her lunch. As Ngat and San cannot pick up their daughter from school they rely on other members of the community to watch after her.

The lights of this household are extinguished early and the evening meals of rationed rice are cleared quickly to avoid attracting the swarms of mosquitoes from the nature reservation - dengue is rife this time of year. It's a precarious situation for Ngat and his family but they are looking out for each other.

CARE International in Vietnam has provided immediate food support to strengthen to capacity of people affected by the floods.

Ngat and his family are one of over 1,000 households in An Giang province that have received immediate food support. "It's enough for us to live for a month, we are very grateful for the support," Ngat says. Follow-up distributions are intended to provide additional support during this period while livelihoods have been disrupted. Any subsistence stocks of rice that remain in his area are inaccessible. Having this staple will prevent him and his family from falling in to a credit-debt spiral that threatens to prolong this period of hardship.

CARE has also distributed non-food items funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to strengthen the coping capacity of communities at high risk from the floods, including elderly people with little family support, people with disabilities, female-headed households with dependent children and infants, as well as poor families, landless families and those reliant on casual labour.

Ngat and San's daughter can now take filtered water to school in a bottle after they received a silver-impregnated water filter and training on how to manage their water using this device. They also received mosquito nets that will help to protect them from the mosquito swarms at night; hygiene kits to reduce the risk of contracting water-borne diseases or infections; a 10 litre bucket for hauling water; blankets for the coming cool months and lifejackets.

CARE is working with communities to plan how they can provide further support to families such during this peak-flood period and over the course of the next 3 to 6 months. The plans are to focus on livelihoods support while the water levels recede and families such as Ngat and San's wait for the next rice harvest season.