Thursday, January 9, 2014

Floods in Vietnam; maternal health and global warming

Small islands in the floods of Vietnam

Two mothers, with their babies, sit and watch as the flood waters rise around their Central Vietnam home.   They wave and call to us.  Hundreds of people died and tens of thousands lost their homes. Was this just normal rainy season flooding or the effect of global warming?

Regional Vice President for South Asia Isabel Guerrero discusses how an expected 2°C rise in the world’s average temperatures in the next decades threatens South Asia’s dense urban populations with extreme heat, flooding, and disease and could trap millions of people in poverty. Read more at:
Effects expected from projected rise in temperature, worse effects if warming is bigger

When we get home, it is dark and the rain has covered all but the top step.   We wade through warm water to the house and place our things in the dry interior room.  We have a simple meal of rice and greens and then go to bed.  I sleep with Nhan on a hard surface covered with a bamboo mat.  It is not possible to use the outhouse so I arrange a bucket and throw the contents out into the storm. 

There is no electricity.  In the dark the monks still chant.   I try to layer clothing and blankets for a softer sleep and warmth.   Nhan gives me a massage and hopes this will help me sleep through the storm.  She asks me over and over if I am worried and I say if they are not worried than I am not. 

But somewhere in the dark, the old aunt and uncle get up with loud voices and I can hear their concern.  They are moving things up to a higher place; food, firewood, the chickens.  They work in the dark until dawn.  I can see that my biggest help is to stay in one place and not get in the way.   The puppy pulls on the woven chicken baskets and lets them all out.   He is a mischievous puppy and entertains us as the water rises.  

When it is light, they get down their small boat; the one the uncle built himself from bamboo and put it in the water.   I can see they are excited and happy to go out in their lovely, little boat.  They go over to check on the monks at the temple.   The temple is under water, even though it is built on a hill and the whole structure is well elevated.   It is not high enough. 

Small houses are islands in swirling water.  People call hello from behind veils of beating rain.   We sit and watch.   I can see a family across the way in which the floods are about to enter the house but no one leaves.   I see cows being led through the water by owners in boats.  
There is no means of communication with the outside world.  No one comes to check or help.  It is a flood in the time of flooding and some are worst than others. 

In Cambodia, the houses are built on stilts but in Vietnam they are houses built on small houses with elevated decks and porches and a loft in case the flooding gets really high.   The families most precious things are put in the one “dry” room and usually includes the family alter and old photos of relatives who have died.  The aunt and uncle’s alter is in a small balcony and they say we can go up there if we have to. 

When the sun comes out, we get in the boat to visit neighbors and see how everyone is.   Whole houses are under water.  People are living in small boats. Animals are stored in houses for safety.  In my country, this would be a disaster.  People would be evacuated and there would be emergency money for shelters and re-building houses.   Only neighbors offer help to one another and even that seems undependable.  Each little island is expected to know how to survive the monsoons.

Nhan navigates a carefully crafted, homemade boat through the flood waters.

They say it is normal but it is the highest any of them can ever recall.  It is far above the last recorded highest levels in 1999.  I can see that people have built their houses high enough to avoid flooding and they are still flooded.  Later the government estimates 80,000 people lost their homes, 28 died and more were missing.  

It is festive, going out in the boat and visiting neighbors.  A couple sleeps in their boat, afraid if they leave their house it will be robbed.  It’s under water anyway.  A man cried as a neighbor forces him to leave with his cows.  Many houses are simply empty and covered in water.  Nhan paddles through all of this with ease.   My shoes float away.  

They ask again if I am worried and I say I am only worried that the floods here will get worst and that it is caused by Global Warming.   They do not know what global warming is.

The rains do stop, during the third night and by morning the flood levels have gone down.  The aunt and uncle are busy throwing water back into the house and sweeping vigorously with a bamboo broom.  Everyone is doing this.  It is all of a sudden time to clean as there is so much water to clean with; never mind that it is dirty water.  There will never be enough clean water for washing floors.   This is fresh rainwater and it is now being used in a mass, village throwing of water and sweeping. When we are finished at the house, we go and repeat the procedure at the temple. 
Nhan goes out in the boat to see if we can leave and returns in a few hours to say we can.  We walk for a few miles, through the water while Nhan takes our bags in the boat.  When we get to the highway a van will take us o to Danang. 

As I walk, people wave, give the peace sign and join in.  The damage is unimaginable.  Schools, temples, farms, roads and houses are in disrepair.  Some are better built for floods than others.  Everywhere people are throwing water in and sweeping.

When we get to town, I can see more damage and more people pitching in to clean schools, repair bridges and fix roads.   That night we sleep at a cousin's house.  The room has been flooded and we walk through garbage filled pools to reach the door.  There is no furniture or food.   We sleep on the mud caked floors on our mats.   

 I try to talk about global warming but no one knows what I am talking about, even with a translator.   It is not just that I am speaking another language; it is beyond cultural belief and understanding.  Floods are normal and sometimes they are worst than others.   They cannot imagine that something done in the western world is causing the floods to be more frequent and more severe.   They cannot believe this even though we dropped millions of bombs on their small country.   They cannot see the hidden war of economic greed and global warning.  I feel that I should tell them but what can they do.    The old aunt and uncle will wait for the water to go down and tend their farm as they have their whole life.   Their children live in Ho Chi Minh City and have no plans to take over the farm.  I panic, not because I fear I will drown in the flood but because of the rice fields and the small, perfect farms set in and around them; places of impeccable beauty and grace.   Places where people call hello to each other on small islands in the midst of a flood.

I want to believe it is normal and that it is not caused by global warming.  I want to believe ah, yes it is normal but I can see it is higher than usual.  The privilege and curse of my background means I can read and listen to the news.  

When I return to the United States, I see that we too live on islands surrounded by a different sort of storm. We go inside and shut our doors and buy more things than we could ever use.  We get in the car and roll up the window.  We turn on the heat or air condition and shut the windows and pull the blinds.   I want to call out from my island to the next and say, “Here I am.  Are you okay?  Should I get in my boat and come over?"

The aunt and uncle on the small farm, in Vietnam, have almost no carbon foot print.   They have no utilities, car or packaged food.  They make a small fire each morning in their outdoor kitchen and save hot water in a thermos for the day at the same time they cook their rice.  The pig and chickens live there beside them, eating whatever scraps they can find.  They weave hats, sleeping mats and even their boat.   They fish and gather greens for dinner.  They help the monks who live next door and greet friends and neighbors with friendliness and respect.  The aunt had all her babies in this house.  If it was dry enough she went out into the rice fields and if it was flooded she stayed inside, continuing her daily tasks until she felt the baby coming out.   Birth, death, rain, floods and the dry season come and go.  They sit there together with the puppy chasing the chickens. They have been married since they were teenagers.  In my country, in highly developed countries the world over, we can not imagine them as they can not imagine us.  

In the Phillipines, thousands are effected by the typhoon that also brought flooding to Vietnam. In all such natural disasters, women and children suffer and die and long after the rains and winds stop, they must re-build again and again.  In my country, people donate money and when the images are too much to bare, go out and buy more, drink more, eat more trying to build the walls of their islands to keep out the flood; to keep their children safe against harm.  

"Hello, out there.  How are you?  Are you okay?  Should I row over and help?"

What if the best way we could help the next generation of babies was to simply change the way we live so they could continue to live as they have for thousands of years?

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