As part of UNICEF’s on-going emergency response to a severe drought in 10 affected provinces in the South Central, Central Highlands and Mekong Delta regions of Viet Nam, I recently (November 9-10) went on a field trip to Ben Tre to visit three communes (Ba Tri, Giong Trom and Mo Cay Bac) impacted by drought and salt water intrusion as well as forecasted to be greatly impacted by climate change in the future.
We started our journey with a small concern our scheduled visits could overlap with school hours, which would hinder our ability to talk with children in selected households. Luckily we finally found a solution by deciding to engage them over lunch and stay later in the afternoon to meet and listen to children’s experiences.
The following stories are first-hand accounts from children and their families describing their day-to-day lives and challenges to overcome this significant natural disaster and learn how to adapt and accept climate change will continue to have great impacts on this land.
Upon arrival in Ben Tre we met Pham Thi Hong Xuyen, Chairwoman of the commune Women’s Union in Giong Trom district, who took us to visit the household of an elderly lady. Aged 72 years, Tran Thi Quyen still looks healthy despite a hard life full of worries about her family. She took us on a walk through her My An hamlet in Long My commune along a canal passing through a garden and fish ponds as well as a small open air toilet. Crossing a small bridge to her house, Quyen looked up at the coconut trees and said: “This year, we suffered big losses with our coconuts. Salt water intrusion has made the coconut fruit very small and easily fall from the trees. I feed the fallen ones to chickens. In previous years, we could harvest about 100 coconuts a month, but this year we harvest 100 in three months and the dealers only pay VND 80,000 (US$3.5) per dozen. This year they boycotted the small coconuts, which has made our lives more difficult”. I responded by asking if she had sufficient clean water during the drought and salt water intrusion. She pointed her finger to the neighbour and said: “The drought and salt water intrusion this year was longer than past years. We didn’t have enough clean water and I have been forced to ask my kind neighbours for help in sharing their clean water and they kindly accepted. I tried my best to save the clean water that we have and I have had to collect rain water in buckets from my fibro cement roof. But by February this year, we had totally run out of rain water. Our family’s daily meals depend on my grandson finding river prawns and fish. But since the long drought and salt water intrusion, his luck has run out and he catches very little - not even half a kilo. The truth is if this natural disaster continuess, we would rather die”. In a sorrowful voice she continued: “Our lemon business is also failing. Now, we only get VND1,000/kg (US 10 cents) as the saltwater has made our lemons yellow and bitter. Nobody wants to buy them. In the past, we could sell for VND10,000-15,000/kg - but now it is impossible.”
This is a dream of many kids, but is unlikely to come true for Kha. Next year, drought and saltwater intrusion will likely return to his hometown, bringing with it daily challenges for Kha and his family to earn a living and to send him to school. Kha and his family’s situation is why UNICEF’s Emergency Respond Programme is working to improve water, sanitation and hygiene conditions in Ben Tre and other provinces.
It was difficult to leave Kha and his family after hearing their story. Hopefully a smile will return to Kha’s face in the future and his little dream will come true.
A BOAT TO NOWHERE
Next stop was the household of Nguyen Van Linh. The 40-year-old has a determined face, but perhaps his struggle to take care of his family has made him look older than his age. He is considered a hard-working man in Tan Phong 2 hamlet, Thanh Tan commune where he lives with his children and family. Early this year, his family welcomed good news. A coconut company from Malaysia had provided a small amount of capital to allow Linh to rebuild his house from bricks.
Linh took us around his new house. His pride was obvious when he pointed to a new latrine for the household, just nearby. He said his family had never had a safe and clean toilet before and this had made it hard for his wife and children to practice safe personal hygiene and sanitation. His three-year-old daughter often became sick due to poor sanitation. Upon deciding to rebuild the house, he decided that building the latrine was his first priority. His daughter, is the youngest family member. She appeared intelligent and active. “I built this house to have a proper shelter for the kids. My wife and I have got used to this difficult situation,” he said. “It was my mistake not to make the steps from the house foundation, my daughter slipped and fell. She has had a fever for a few days already. I will definitely make the steps so she will not fall again”.
Although enduring a hard life, Linh’s family has benefited from warm support from their neighbours. During the recent natural disaster, they shared food and water with their children when Linh and his wife returned from fishing trips. Linh took us to the Hau River to graphically illustrate how the drought had affected him. There his fishing boat sat marooned in the mud. “This boat has been so important to get food for my family and for previous generations. No matter how difficult it is, I will keep it and go fishing. When it is trapped, I will try other ways to take care of my family”. His hands continued to rearrange the fishing nets as he talked. Worry lines spread across his face. “Each year I can only catch fish for a few months, from November to April. If the drought and saltwater intrusion happens again, it will be extremely difficult for us.”
On the way to see us off, Linh motioned that he had something to tell us, but finally kept it to himself. We left feeling hopeful that their beautiful children will be a foundation and motivation for Linh and his wife and that they will soon find ways to get their boat back into the river to build a better future for their children.
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Written by Vu Xuan Viet and Truong Viet Hung
Photo by Truong Viet Hung