About this time every year, I write this article about swimming and drowning tragedies. Each year, I wonder if the situation is ever going to improve. And I believe it is.
Vietnam’s drowning epidemic continues with sickening regularity as each summer rolls up. Depending on which bunch of statistics you consult, from 2000 to 3000 children drown due to natural disasters, lack of supervision, poor awareness of environmental hazards and almost no real swimming skills.
It has to be said that there’s little evidence that drownings are decreasing, although there are some numbers suggesting beach drownings are less frequent with the growing number of life-saving clubs and organizations monitoring the beach environment these days.
However the effort to expand swimming classes into rural areas has gained more attention. As reported recently by Tuoi Tre News, swimming classes have opened in the mountains of Quan Son District, located in the north-central province of Thanh Hoa. Down south, the Ca Mau Province People’s Committee is offering free swimming lessons and awareness programs to alert parents to their role in looking after their kids during the summer break.
Back in May, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, at a ceremony in Hanoi to promote a swimming program for adults and children, pointed out that only 1,000 out of the 50,000 schools nationwide had taught swimming and how to avoid drowning. The new swimming program aims to get at least 3,000 to 5,000 students into lessons. The deputy prime minister also stated the need for children and parents to ‘prevent and respond to emergencies as well as how to save others.’
What’s significant are the growing requirements of local authorities to have parents attending some of the programs to spread awareness of the dangers when swimming. This marks a shift which could make all the difference in reducing the death toll from drowning for both the young and old.
In many ways, involving and teaching the parents as well as kids about the hazards of swimming areas – especially in rural areas where kids swim in rice paddies, ponds, rivers, construction site ponds and so on – being aware of where your children are outside of school time, and supervising them would certainly had a significant effect on childhood drowning deaths.
I also think an earlier introduction of understanding water, how rivers work, and environmental hazards (factory pollution in water and rubbish hidden underwater would be examples) is necessary as some statistics point to the fact that nearly half the drownings occur in rural areas with children between three and eight years old.
One reason often overlooked when I hear people complain and ask why so many die is the sheer number of kids at risk. Overall, 20 million students are enrolled in Vietnam’s education system of which eight million are elementary students. Nearly half of that number are in rural areas but struggle to continue onto high school and drop out to help their parents make a living.
If you add to that the difficulty of attracting high quality teachers, let alone swimming instructors, in rural areas due to lower salaries than the cities, it becomes harder to reach out and educate all kids about swimming safety, not to mention raising the money for pools when other issues cry out for attention.
The Ministry of Education and Training is considering making swimming a part of the curriculum next year although the obvious problem is a lack of pools and qualified swimming teachers. SwimVietnam and other non-governmental organizations have already trained hundreds of local teachers for swimming classes, and all of them have been able to expand programs across the south, center, the highlands and the north. Also such organizations are working with schools to supply teaching materials (and improve what is already available) for local trainers.
One part that still surprises me is how the media and social media are not used enough in passing on the basic messages of swimming safety. What I mean is not just news reports of swimming tragedies or warnings – the good rules for swimming such as never swim alone, swim where adults can keep an eye on you, assess the water conditions, or even just the simple question, ‘Do you know where and what your children are doing now?’
I’m not a religious person but each year I hope the terrible drowning statistics become less. The challenges are huge but I do sense the Vietnamese are becoming stronger and more effort is being put into dealing with it.
May the kids (and their families) have a safe and fun summer!