When a Western Australian swim school coordinator, Bev Christmass visited Vietnam with her husband in 2010 she was confronted with stories of the alarming rate of children drowning in the Mekong River.
“When I first travelled to Vietnam I was confronted by the poverty, I was eager to do some volunteer work… it was awful to find out almost ten children a day were drowning, and I realised this was something I could help with.” Ms Christmass explained.
Like Christmass, this statistic may come as a shock for people in countries like Australia that averages a death rate by drowning of 40 children per year. In Australia swimming lessons are a normal part of almost every child’s upbringing, subsidised by the government through in-school swimming lessons.
Houses along the Tien Gieng branch of the Mekong River
In 2012, when Christmass’ work place, Beatty Park Leisure Centre closed down for redevelopment, she saw an opportunity for a number of the swim teachers to begin volunteering and formed the Australian Water Safety On the Mekong (AWSOM) project.
The Tien Giang province, which is located along the Mekong River, became the focus of the project. The river is the source of water and life for over one and a half million people who live in this part of semi-rural Vietnam. The river, however, is an omnipresent hazard for children and adults alike who have never been given the opportunity to learn how to swim.
Having no idea where to start, Chistmass managed to form an alliance with the Tien Union of Friendship Organization (TUFO) and the Saigon Children’s Charity, who along with the local Tien authorities recognised the issue but did not have the resources to decrease the level of drownings and injuries in the river.
These organisations arranged for disabled, disadvantaged and orphaned children to be the students, providing them with the much-needed swimming skills needed for a life on the Mekong River.
For many of the children this could be life saving knowledge to have learned.
Swim students that participated in the AWSOM project
“We realised that the Vietnamese swim teachers themselves weren’t educated in water safety, a skill that’s crucial for the kids survival around the water.”
We taught the children essential survival strokes and demonstrated rescues, using everyday objects such as rope or palm leaves, even empty cartons that could be used as floatation devices.
One of the officials said to me that she would have no idea how to save someone who was drowning, and would never have thought to use objects. Adults themselves who can’t swim will jump into the river to try and save children, leading to multiple deaths at a time.”
The project was originally going to be a one off event, but the need for a more long-term plan became apparent shortly into the first venture. The AWSOM project is now conducted every year in January.
One of the largest aims of the AWSOM project is sustainability, as an extension of the swimming lessons. Since its inception, every year the project has funded three different Vietnamese swim teachers to travel to Perth Western Australia, and be given the same training as Australian swim teachers. This allows instructors to be teaching in Vietnam all year round.
There are other charities such as Swim Vietnam that have a very large focus on fundraising. AWSOM holds fundraiser events every year, but for the most part their work is funded by the volunteer swim teachers, using their own time and money.
AWSOM became a registered charity in November 2013, and has already begun to plan their next trip for January 2015.
Hannah Beard is a writer & journalist, based in Perth, Australia.