Monsoon Floods Leave Mekong Basin Submerged and Starving

HANOI, Vietnam, September 22, 2000 (ENS) - Flood levels on rivers in Vietnam's Mekong Basin, already at 40 year record heights, are still rising. Months of drenching monsoon rains have submerged all low lying areas, including those in cities and towns, forcing thousands of people to huddle together on dykes with a minimum of food and water.

Tropical storms, typhoons and floods have killed hundreds and displaced many thousands of people in China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, Viet Nam and Laos.

Heavy monsoon rains since early July have inundated a large part of the Mekong River watershed area, covering nearly 800,000 square kilometres of land in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, affecting millions of people.

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Flooded homes in the Mekong Basin (Photo courtesy Hydro-Meteorological Service of Vietnam (HMSV))
United Nations and government officials and people across the Mekong Delta are now bracing themselves as swollen rivers from Cambodia and Laos flow over the delta to the sea.

In Vietnam, the floods have claimed at least 60 lives, including 51 children, and have driven an estimated 140,000 Vietnamese people from their homes.

Safe drinking water is another growing concern. Pollution from groundwater has reached dangerous levels in some areas. The majority of flood affected people are consuming unclean river water, therefore outbreaks of malaria, diarrhoea, and other infectious diseases are expected. UNICEF warns that children will be especially hard hit by outbreaks of disease.

The Hydro-Meteorological Service of Vietnam forecasts that in the next five days, the upstream flood water levels on the Tien and Hau Rivers - branches of the Mekong - will likely reach the highest flood levels.

Downstream, floodwaters in the Mekong River Delta, the country's rice bowl, all exceed Alarm Level III - very dangerous flood conditions. The safety of river protection dykes is in jeopardy, and the water is damaging roads and bridges.

Laos is experiencing widespread flooding in its major rice producing areas of the central and southern lowlands. At least four provinces in Laos have been badly affected and are now facing food shortages.

Because the typhoon season continues until December, it is possible that rains may make the conditions throughout the Mekong Delta even worse in the next two months.

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Standing knee deep in flood waters, relief workers distribute food. (Photo courtesy HMSV)
The Vietnamese government, in cooperation with provincial and local authorities, has ensured better flood protection by mobilizing soldiers and volunteers to construct and reinforce dikes in flood prone areas ahead of the arrival of rising waters. These preparedness measures have helped keep the death toll down in comparison with previous years, according to observers from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The United Nations World Food Programme announced today that it will immediately give two months' supply of food to 40,000 of the worst affected people in Vietnam, about one-third of the total number of Vietnamese in desperate need of food. Each recipient of the operation will get a 20 kilogram (44 pound) bag of rice.

"Our food assistance will enable people in the hardest hit provinces to survive until the flood waters have receded," said Kenro Oshidari, World Food Programme regional manager for Asia. He described these floods in the Mekong Delta as the worst since the great disaster of 1961.

Oshidari says the flood waters have destroyed not only people's food stores but most of the rice crop in Vietnam's 61 provinces.

In Cambodia the World Food Programme is meeting the emergency food needs of the flood victims from food stocks already stockpiled in the country under a long term rehabilitation operation for 1.3 million people.

The Lao Red Cross, in cooperation with government agencies, is carrying out an assessment of the needs and preparing for a relief operation to people in the affected areas.

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Vietnamese family in the Mekong Delta worries about where the next meal is coming from. (Photo courtesy UNICEF)
Stressing the need for clean water, sanitation and basic primary health care for people in the flooded areas, the IFRC is appealing for the equivalent of two million Swiss francs to help the Red Cross Societies of Vietnam and Cambodia to provide immediate relief to the 600,000 people who have lost their homes and farmland across the region.

The Vietnam Red Cross, with support from IFRC, has carried out assessments and provided emergency relief goods, including rice, plastic sheets, mosquito nets and soap, for people in the flooded areas.

Following an assessment mission led by the deputy prime minister, the Vietnamese government has decided to allocate the equivalent of US$2.3 million for the four flooded southern provinces in addition to a previous allocation of US$1.2 million. Other government officials are currently travelling through the affected region to assess the most urgent needs.

The UN resident coordinator's office says there is an urgent need for motorboats, or for cash contributions to buy them, in order to aid local authorities in evacuating flood victims. Rice, clothing, plastic sheeting, safe water, water tanks and medicines are also much needed. In the longer term, rice seed will be required to ensure the timely planting of the important winter-spring rice crop.

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Vietnamese family salvages belongings from their flooded home. (Photo courtesy HMSV)
In response to IFRC's appeal, the governments of Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, Denmark and the Netherlands are providing contributions. UN agencies working in Vietnam will also provide initial assistance through IFRC valued at US$323,000.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization plans to field an assessment mission to the Mekong area in the near future, when the water levels are lowering.

The World Health Organization plans to provide technical assistance to the flood affected provinces by monitoring, making assessment and survey on sensitive diseases for targeted interventions.

High in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal, torrential rain since mid-July has created havoc. Floods and landslides across the country have killed 150 people and caused the loss of millions of dollars worth of property and crops.

According to the data made available by Nepal's Home Ministry, 70 out of 75 districts have been hit by floods and landslides. Several hundred houses, thousands of hectares of paddy fields and a number of bridges have been washed away.

In India, following drought earlier in the year which parched a number of western and southern states, severe monsoon floods have devastated many parts of the country, killing 306 people, displacing thousands and destroying crops. The latest flooding occurred in the country's most populous state, Utter Pradesh, where weeks of heavy rains caused floods displacing thousands of people. Although water levels in the major rivers and tributaries have begun receding, an estimated 40,000 people remain homeless.

In the low lying nation of Bangladesh, some 60,000 people were made homeless and several were killed following floods on Sandwip Island, situated 60 miles off the mainland, during the first ten days of September. The floods were caused by unusually high tidal waves in the Bay of Bengal.

In China, in the first week of September, Typhoon Maria killed 29 people and caused estimated damages of US$100 million in the rice growing provinces of Guangdong and Hunan. But now warm dry weather across most of China is aiding maturation and harvesting of summer crops, and planting of early winter crops.

A dike strengthening program along the flood prone Yangtze River will help protect the river bank of against erosion and improve critical sections of existing main dikes.

The program was kicked off in June with the approval of US$210 million in loan funding from the World Bank and US$335 million from the government of China. It will help protect properties and lives in Hunan and Hubei provinces where 75 million people rely upon river dikes for flood protection.