VietNamNet Bridge – It was on a scorchingly hot day in May when five children bathing in the river of Cua Viet Town in Quang Tri Province drowned.
Shortage: Swimming classes for students remain limited mainly because of a chronic lack of swimming pools.
An atmosphere of silent grief hung heavily over the town as the remains of the children, aged between six and nine years, were recovered on that fatal day. Four of the victims were cousins, and none of them knew how to swim.
"They were the obedient children of my two sons. They used to come to say hello to me every day, but they will no longer say hello to me forever," said Le Van Con, paternal grandfather to the cousins, in a voice choked with emotion.
The loss has made Con so depressed that he could not shed tears. He would instead spend hours staring at the photographs of his grandchildren on the family altar, which has since been dedicated to them.
"They would usually go bathing in the river with adults. But it was very hot, and the tap water was cut off on that day, so as they called on each other to bathe in the river," recalled Nguyen Nong, maternal uncle of the deceased.
This was the first time such a heart-rending tragedy had happened to the town, and to victims who were viewed as too young to die and who had yet to be trained how to swim, remarked Nguyen Truong Ky, the Cua Viet People's Committee chairman,.
"There are about 750 children aged six to 10 years old in Cua Viet, and only five per cent of them can swim," added the chairman.
Major cause of death
The tragedy in Cua Viet is far from surprising, as drowning continues to be one of the leading causes of mortality among children aged more than one year in Viet Nam.
Figures from the Health and Environment Management Agency (HEA) under the Ministry of Health showed that in 2012, an estimated 3,333 of 7,211 deaths among children were caused by drowning. Of these, children under 15 made up 80 per cent.
These numbers are slightly less than those registered in 2011, when 3,594 of 7,598 deaths among children were attributed to drowning.
The danger of drowning has been lying in wait for children for years, partly because the country has 3,260 kilometres of coastline, as well as numerous rivers, canals and ponds. It is therefore not surprising that more children drown during the hot summer days, as well as the cold rainy days that bring in floods every year.
In addition, a significant number of children still do not know how to swim, and adults have been careless in attending to this need, said HEA officials.
In attempts to reduce drowning dating back to 2010, the Ministry of Education and Training has asked local education and training departments nationwide to take preventive measures and conduct pilot swimming classes among children in primary schools.
The ministry has also asked all schools to organise swimming classes for their students to prevent drowning. It also challenged all primary schools to create effective models for teaching children to swim by 2015, based on the economic capabilities of cities and provinces where the schools were located.
Four years after the ministry issued these instructions, only a few changes seem to have taken place.
Committee chairman Ky said all primary schools in Cua Viet have neither pools nor instructors for swimming because there was no budget for such facilities and training.
"We have so far reminded parents and teachers to keep their eyes on the children and make them think of the danger of bathing in rivers," said the chairman.
The town has erected signboards on two river banks to warn children to refrain from swimming there. But a shortage of funds has prevented Cua Viet from making signboards for all of the town's river banks, Ky noted.
In big cities like Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh, nearly all primary schools have no swimming pools, though Hoang Thi Sinh, former principal of Ngoc Khanh Primary School, recalled that teaching students to swim was nothing new.
The Ha Noi Education and Training Department came up with a plan to teach children to swim 10 years ago, but it was not feasible because the schools had limited funds and lots of students, Sinh said.
The situation in Ho Chi Minh City is the same. Fewer than 100 schools, or a mere five per cent of the total number of schools there, have swimming pools.
The shortage of facilities has compelled most primary schools to organise classes in private swimming pools, but these are insufficient to meet the high demand for swimming instruction among students.
For example, in Go Vap District, there are only four swimming pools for the six districts numbered 8, 10 and 12, as well as 14, 15 and 16. The number of primary and secondary students in District 12 is 4,000, which is equivalent to 80 classes.
The lack of swimming teachers is another obstacle. It is common to see one instructor working with 50 and 60 students in a single hour, leading to a lower quality of instruction.
Education and Training Minister Pham Vu Luan said most cities and provinces have not gone beyond disseminating information on the prevention of drowning to schools and parents.
Swimming classes for students remain limited mainly because of a chronic lack of swimming pools, Luan said.
"To effectively address the issue, the ministry must provide incentives to encourage individuals and organisations to invest in swimming pools for children in the future, as well as focus on training more swimming instructors for schools," he added.
Nguyen Trong An, deputy director of the Child Care and Protection Department, said that instead of passively waiting for support, authorities in cities, provinces, organisations, and schools should create simple and affordable swimming pools for children using nets or rubber, based on the availability of land in their areas.
Tran Khac Huy, head of the Students Affairs Division at the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Education and Training, said parents should act on their own initiative to bring their children to private swimming classes.
"There are many difficulties to overcome to be able to teach children how to swim in schools. We can't do whatever we want," Huy added.