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Archive for Monday, September 18, 2000

Creeping flood raises Mekong Delta tensions

September 18, 2000

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— For the residents of Vietnam's Mekong Delta, the summer has been a grim waiting game, watching waters creeping up to claim their farmland and homes in the worst flooding in four decades.

"So many nights, I couldn't sleep because I would worry about the water coming up a little more," said Nguyen Van Quan, 72, a rice farmer whose thatched-roof home is largely submerged under more than 6 feet of water.

Quan and his wife have been living on bamboo platforms set in the rafters of their house for the past month. "Of course I'm afraid, but I've lived here all my life. Where will I go?" he said Sunday.

Record flooding in Cambodia and Vietnam has affected more than 1 million people in recent weeks, forcing tens of thousands of families from their homes in search of higher ground. Areas of Laos and Thailand have also been hit.

Monsoon rains began in July, a month and a half ahead of schedule. The rain has continued since, swelling the Mekong River along its course through all four countries.

In Cambodia, officials say nearly 100 people have died in flooding since July. In Vietnam, the death toll stands at 15, including 10 children.

Government officials say 150,000 people have been displaced in the three hardest-hit Vietnamese provinces of An Giang, Dong Thap and Long An. More than 200,000 homes have been flooded.

Meteorologists say nearly half the three provinces are submerged, with water levels at or above those of 1996, when floods killed 217 people.

The Mekong, rising an average of two to four inches a day, will probably peak in early October, approaching the 17-foot record set in 1961, officials said.

The town of Tan Chau, about 160 miles west of Ho Chi Minh City in An Giang province, lies near the Cambodian border, where the Mekong rushes down into the delta and most families make a living growing rice.

Acres of verdant rice paddies have been swallowed by muddy brown water. Low-lying rural roads are often swamped, despite sandbagging. And thousands of homes are flooded, sometimes to the rooftops, driving tens of thousands of people to seek shelter elsewhere.

Along a dirt dike 6-feet wide near Tan Chau, almost 200 people evacuated from their low-lying homes live jammed into makeshift shelters like thousands of other families in the region.

Nguyen Thi Phu, 34, and her five relatives camped under plastic tarps held up by bamboo rods. They managed to rescue their wooden bed, and some pots and pans. A tiny altar stood in one corner of the shelter, but most of their possessions are submerged.

"My house is flooded up to here," Phu said, gesturing at her waist. "We're only living day to day. I don't know when we'll be able to go home again. They tell us the water will go down by November. Until then, we will have to live here."

Conditions are cramped and unsanitary. The lapping waters are eroding many of the sodden dikes, but 2,500 soldiers and volunteers are helping reinforce them.

Rising waters threaten increasing numbers of people.

Last week, the Red Cross appealed for $1.9 million for people in Southeast Asia, with the bulk going to Cambodia. This week, officials said an additional appeal of up to $1.5 million would be launched for Vietnam.

The money will buy plastic sheeting for emergency shelters for around 35,000 people, at least 2,750 tons of rice, 25,000 mosquito nets and 6,000 inexpensive boats.

Vietnam's government has already pledged $2.2 million in aid for the flood-stricken areas.

"It's a disaster here, but it's been a slow disaster, not like the central region's floods," said Nguyen Thanh Na of the An Giang People's Committee, referring to the record flash floods in 1999 that killed more than 700 people in central Vietnam.

"Because the water has risen so slowly, there's no panic. I think people here have resigned themselves to it."

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