Hope Floats

Tackling drowning, a silent epidemic in Vietnam…

On a recent weekend in June, one of Asia’s silent but deadly killers struck again, this time claiming the lives of six Vietnamese children. Four schoolgirls aged 13-15 in Ha Tinh, Central Vietnam, presumably slipped into a river while hunting for oysters, leaving slippers and bicycles behind as the only witnesses to the tragedy. Two hundred kilometres north, in Nghe An, two brothers, aged 6 and 9, drowned in a nearby pond while in the fields with their grandmother.

These incidents gave human faces to statistics shared earlier that same week at a conference organized by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, showing that Vietnam has the highest drowning rate in Southeast Asia, an average of nine children a day. Other estimates put drowning rates as high as 35 per day, the vast discrepancy due to the fact that drowning deaths are often underreported to hospitals (the source of data for most national health statistics) for reasons including the speed at which it claims its victims making medical intervention unnecessary or because incidents often happen in rural communities, far from health facilities. Known as the “silent epidemic,” drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, and in some parts of Asia, reportedly kills more children aged 1-4 than those who die from measles, polio, whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria and tuberculosis combined. The Alliance for Safe Children reports that in 2008 there were 50 child drowning deaths in all of Australia compared to 50 child drowning deaths per day in Bangladesh in that same year.


With more than 3,000 km of coastline and an untold number of rivers, lakes and ponds, it’s not surprising Vietnam is battling a drowning epidemic. Ask any rural family and chances are they will have a first-hand drowning or near-drowning story to tell. While many developed countries have had generations of education on water safety, in Vietnam limited awareness, combined with inadequate adult supervision (where children are often left in the care of grandparents or left to play on their own) and unsafe environments (the majority of children drown within 20 meters of their homes, in shallow ponds, wells or other water hazards) contribute towards these extreme drowning rates.

Another factor is the lack of swimming skills. Surveys show only 35 percent of Vietnam’s children aged 8-15 can swim, leading the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs’ Child Care and Protection Department to put forth an effort to make swimming a compulsory subject at schools by 2015. Sadly, a lack of funds led to the failure of this initiative, causing Nguyen Trong An, the ministry’s deputy director to suggest that “provinces and cities would be better off raising funds themselves instead of waiting for funds from the State or ministries.”


NGOs and charities, like Water Safety Vietnam (WSV), are stepping in to fill the gap. The Melbourne-based not-for-profit has been training swim teachers since 2011 and running swim programs for at-risk children and adults. After a near-drowning incident of two tourists off the Ho Tram (Vung Tau) coast, WSV was brought in to train resort personnel on basic water survival and CPR. The next step was to train local children, but getting support from local officials and parents was surprisingly difficult.

“In those early meetings with [government authorities] and parents to encourage them to send their children to the swim program [first using hotel swimming pools and now the free community swimming pool managed by a consortium headed by HCMC businessman Carl Gay], I had to tell them that while tourists were drowning in the sea, their own children were drowning in the rivers and streams,” says Pam O’Reilly, Project Manager for WSV.


Center of Gravity
Since the pool opened in August 2013, more than 300 children have learned to swim and recently 19 primary school teachers participated in a 14 day teacher training and school holiday swim program. Since its founding, WSV has run swim programs and trained teachers in HCMC, Hanoi, Vung Tau, Phuoc Buu, Hoa Hoi, Bien Hoa, Binh Tuan and Ben Tre, with particular focus on rural locations where children are the most vulnerable to drowning hazards.

Part of the problem lies in Vietnam’s water culture, or lack thereof. “A lot of people come to [the beach] and get wet but like a tea bag, dunk, dunk, dunk, fully clothed and then get out. From what we can see, actual swimming in deep water is not encouraged. Lifesavers will whistle you back when you go into deeper water. Maybe it’s because they don’t feel well enough equipped to rescue anybody so they’d rather make sure you don’t get into trouble in the first place,” says Pam. “In villages, there are deep wells which have no barriers because it impedes access to the women who are getting water, so kids are riding their bikes around these wells freely. And of course, children are attracted to water. But for so many, they don’t have a choice. They have to live near water, whether it’s a well or fish farms or agricultural ditches. And when parents can’t swim, they then tell their own children to not go near the water. But every child’s inquisitive nature has it that they will, often with a mate, and often unsupervised. However, our trainers have noticed that kids, especially village kids, take to swimming very quickly. And perhaps because they’re expected to take on responsibility at a much younger age, they turn around and teach other little ones.”

The charity also brings in Australian volunteers to conduct two-week swim programs for children, as well as works with similar locally-based charities to exchange materials, share staff, help train presenters and upgrade qualifications for local swim teachers.


Ultimately, WSV’s programs stress knowledge as much as skills. “Unfortunately, in Vietnam, we often have multiple deaths associated with a drowning accident. On too many occasions, when one person gets into difficulties, another weak swimmer tries to help and they too, drown. Children in our programs are taught: If you can’t swim, don’t go in. We encourage them to reach with a bamboo pole or throw something in the water instead. There are so many things that float, even for a few minutes: a palm frond or a backpack, for instance. Kids will naturally scramble and hold on to something. If small kids lay flat on their tummy, they can actually pull quite a heavy person in by lowering their center of gravity. But one of the most important things we teach is the knowledge that you can actually intervene when someone is drowning and not stand by helplessly or jump in if you can’t swim. Hopefully, one day this simple rule may save a life,” says Pam.

At this stage, WSV is content to work with authorities at the local level in addressing the lack of suitable training locations and trained swim teachers. “Right now, there is no way to know if WSV programs are making a difference to the drowning rate in Vietnam. What we do know is that not a day goes by without us being told another story of someone drowning in Vietnam. We can very quickly teach children to float and swim and we can only hope that one day that skill will help them save their own lives or that of their friend or family member.”

Additional reporting by Pam O’Reilly. For more information on Water Safety Vietnam, or to volunteer, help raise awareness or donate, visit www.watersafetyvietnam.com.

Images by Dan Norman and Ben Collins

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