Children Make-up a Quarter of Southeast Asian Flood Victims

27/10/2011 – Flooding has affected eight million people and killed 800 in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines. A quarter of these deaths have been children.

As flooding inundates parts of Thailand, it hasn’t taken long for children to be swept up and carried away by the surging waters. Current floods in Thailand are the worst in decades and three-quarters of children in Asia have never learned how to swim – a killer combination.

To date, children account for about a quarter of the 800 flood-related casualties reported since July in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines, says the United Nations (UN). It is easy for children to wander out of their parents’ sight and fall into the canals and streams in their neighbourhoods or slip into the floodwaters surrounding their houses, especially after dark.

"It doesn't take very long for a child to slip away from an already harried mother or older sibling who are trying to schlep all the belongings. It takes only two or three minutes for a child to drown,” said Michael Linnan of the US-based Alliance for Safe Children in Bangkok to TIME magazine.

In all, the flooding has affected eight million people in Southeast Asia. More than 50 Thai children and 80 Cambodian children have died. In the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, the overwhelming majority of fatalities reported since August (49 out of 57) have been children. Flooding in Myanmar has also been severe, but no official estimates on child casualties have been published. Still, the scale of the floods indicates shortcomings in disaster risk and reduction planning, says the UN.

More than 370 people have been killed in Thailand alone; but worst of the flooding is expected to hit the Bangkok region tonight. Authorities have warned all 50 districts to be on the alert and the government has begun evacuating people in at-risk regions. Vulnerable groups include people living in some areas of Bangkok and nearby provinces, particularly those living in one-story houses close to rivers and the canals. A five-day holiday (ending October 31st) has been designated for the northern and central provinces, giving them adequate time to prepare for the floods.

“Too much preparation is indeed better than too little,” said Natapanu Nopakun, spokesperson for the government’s Flood Relief Operations Command.

Earlier this week, the head of the UN’s Bangkok office for Disaster Risk Reduction,

Jerry Velasquez, expressed his concern about “the high numbers of children dying in these floods, which was a concern raised by children themselves when over 600 were interviewed for the new Children’s Charter on Disaster Risk Reduction.” The charter was the focus of this month’s International Disaster Reduction Day.

Every year, 240,000 children aged 17 and under drown because most have never learned to swim – roughly the same number that died in the 2004 Asian Tsunami. These deaths receive much less media attention, given that they build up slowly, on a day-to-day basis without the same shock value as a major humanitarian disaster.

The actual number of drowning deaths may be higher than official figures. About 15-25 per cent of such deaths go unreported, given that death certificates aren’t mandatory.

Half of child drowning deaths occur among children under the age of five who are too young to learn to swim.  But, community education and social services have proved useful. For example, research has found that village day care centres can help reduce drowning deaths by 80 per cent.