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
"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. …