Better Warnings on the Mekong ; A New System Planned for Vietnam's Main River May Help Prevent Flood Fatalities

Article excerpt

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. …