Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Bringing local lives back to normalcy - Tran Phuong Anh’s Journey to Ninh Thuan

It did rain – a long rain! You don’t know how long we had been waiting for such rain,” recalled Cha Ma Le Thi Hem. The 29-year-old Raglei ethnic minority mother, like many in Ninh Thuan province, has struggled for the past 36 months with the consequences of a fierce drought that has gripped the South Central region province.

I first encountered Hem during a trip in late November 2016 to the province to visit Raglei community women who are heads of households in their matriarchal society. I could not help but wonder what they had been through during such times of natural adversity.

Cha Ma Le Thi Hem and her malnourished little boy reflect on living with the drought. – UNICEF Photo


“Our four-person family depends entirely on water sources. There was no water for drinking and hygienic practices. There was no water for our corn field. There was hardly any food as a result,” said Hem. Like many other locals, her family fetches water from nearby rivers and streams for daily consumption. During the drought, the streams turned dry. It was the same situation with the local reservoirs supplying water to families.

Situated on the coast of Viet Nam, Ninh Thuan is among 52 provinces affected by the ongoing El Niño-induced drought and saline intrusion. Reduced water use and consumption of unsafe water for washing, ablutions and hand-washing have resulted in increased incidences of diarrhea, dysentery, hand, foot and mouth diseases and other skin diseases. Limited access to water bores has left visible impacts on local children’s health, exacerbating the prevalence of malnutrition.

Hem knows this only too well, as both of her toddlers were diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition (SAM) at the same time.

“I was worried seeing them giving up on food. They threw up between and during the meals and both had diarrhea. Fever also came and went.” When mentioning food, she forgot to add their usual meals included nothing more than plain porridge. Her 24-month second boy, Cha Ma Le Phat, weighed slightly over 6 kilogrammes and prescribed by local doctors as stunted for his height.

“During the prolonged months of extreme weather conditions, we recorded a peak in malnutrition among local children, especially among Raglei ones,” said Dr. Duong Thi Ai Chan, deputy head of the Maty commune health centre, Hem’s commune in Bac Ai district. “Roughly 33.5 per cent of local children in Maty suffered from SAM during the drought period.” The total number of SAM cases detected and treated in the province exceeds 800.

Pina Thi Gai stands in front of her home. Her daughter, Pina Thi May was born malnourished and has yet to recover, in large part due to the drought. – UNICEF Photo
To make ends meet during the drought Hem, like most Raglei women, left home every day to seek work in a nearby town, often unsuccessfully.

Poverty is most visible when it is coupled with natural disaster impacts, as is the case of 20-year-old Pina Thi Gai’s 2-year-old girl Pina Thi May, malnourished from birth. When she reached the age of two a few months ago, she barely weighed 7 kilogrammes.

The Raglei community in Ninh Thuận mainly survives on agriculture and cultivation of maize, peas and pumpkins. For many, gaining an education is not a practical life choice.

Locals gather in November to receive supplies in Maty commune, Bac Ai district. The event, well attended by the community, also featured a demonstration by community workers on the usage of provided water purification sachets. Consumption of safe water has been identified as key in prevention of diseases during emergency interventions. – UNICEF Photo
“I usually get up at 4am to prepare for the day, which normally starts with me and my husband working on a corn field a few kilometres from our house,” said Gai, who dropped out of school during primary education. “But we were out of a job during the drought for the entire year as maize was showing roots due to an absence of water. My husband would often take the bike, our prized asset aside from the bamboo makeshift house, to venture to another area to find work. He usually returned home after unsuccessful attempts.” Gai’s family makes around US$10 per month when harvest work is unavailable. “Now my wish is to return to the field for work as soon as I get up.”

MULTIPLE NEEDS

A joint Government, United Nations and international non-governmental organization assessment in early 2016 confirmed the province’s urgent need for support, focussed on water, sanitation and hygiene, health and nutrition, and food security. With the recent onset of rain, the need for water has reduced. However, UNICEF’s emergency response to support the purification of water, provision of micro-nutrient supplements and hygiene behaviour promotion remains important. Its response strategy involves life-saving support with provision of nutrition interventions, household water treatment and safe storage, and hygiene promotion to prevent communicable diseases.

“Va Vi Nhong Kim, aged 2 years, holds a RUTF sachet - his daily staple for nutrition enhancement as his 21-year-old mother looks on. The majority of Raglei women get married aged 18 or younger.” – UNICEF Photo
Cha Ma Le Phat and Pina Thi May are just two of many SAM children provided with nutrition supplies in past months as part of the response. To improve local nutrition, SAM and moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) children were supplied with therapeutic food (Hebi) and Ready-to Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF). The taking of such supplies during the past three months has delivered dramatic results for Cha Ma Le Phat and Pina Thi May , each having gained 2 kilogrammes on average since the treatment.

“Raglei children, especially those living on mountainous terrain, responded very well to the supplied nutritional food. They eat it as a single source of nourishment or between meals,” said Huynh Thang Son, director of the provincial Centre for Reproductive Health.

Meanwhile, the number of pregnant and lactating women treated with multiple micronutrient supplements has reached 5,549 cases as a result of the response, while 13,300 children aged 6-23 months have received multiple micro-nutrient sachets for home food fortification.

PURIFYING LIFE SOURCES

Although local people’s habit of drinking unsafe water from rivers remains an issue to tackle, the community quickly embraced the use of water purification sachets like Aquatabs. To underline the point, during a recent community event to demonstrate usage of such sachets, someone from the crowd reached for the microphone and asked: “Where can we purchase the sachets and tablets after we have used up supplies? We want to continue with this.”

Practicing matriarchy, Raglei women as heads of households turn up to collect water purification supplies. – UNICEF Photo
Nevertheless, to ensure effectiveness of emergency responses Le Hoang Son, a specialist in charge of emergency supplies from Ninh Thuan Center for Water Supply and Sanitation, said: “The challenge for us is to keep a close watch on the usage of provided items and make sure they are not shelved at home as locals go back to the old habit of using unclean water.”

As I was leaving the province, my local driver pointed at different spots along the road. “A few months ago this massive area of plants was completely brown. Trees, grass, sheep and goats could not survive the drought. Barren land was cracking like spider webs,” she said. Whilst speaking, I caught splashes of green starting to colour the land and felt a sense of hope. “But how long would this last?” she interrupted my thoughts. “The drought is predicted to return in the coming months and the situation is unlikely to get better any time soon.”

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Written and photo by Tran Phuong Anh

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