Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project 2009 Spells PROMISE For Over 200 Families In Northern Vietnam

Habitat Partners With Hai Duong Province To Build Houses With Water And Sanitation Facilities

HAI DUONG, 28th January 2009: Water – an essential element of life – is also a palpable threat to fishing communities in the northern Hai Duong province, the Vietnam site of the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project 2009. Reliant on the province’s rivers for their livelihood, families also often fall ill from drinking river water.

Living by the water: Fishing communities in Cau Cat and Au Thuyen in Vietnam’s northern Hai Duong province. All photos by Mikel Flamm.

PROMISE land: The site in Hai Duong province where international and local volunteers will be building an initial 20 houses as part of the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project 2009.

Behold the future: Le Thi Canh looks forward to living in a safe and permanent house.

Forgone opportunities: Cao Van Giang (left) and his wife Hoang Thi Sen have 40 grandchildren but only two of them receive education due to a lack of money and because the children live on the boats.

Still lacking: Although Doan Van Tien (left) and his wife Hoang Thi Theu have a house which makes it convenient for their grandchildren to go to school, the couple does not have the assurance of secure tenure.

A big step forward: Vu Xuan Dai sits for long periods of time in his boat which he calls home. He hopes to benefit from walking around if he lives in a house.

Difficult to swallow: Vu Thi Tam with her younger son in front of the river from which her family obtains drinking water.

Hands are tied: Nuyen Thi Thai (left) with her teenage son Le Van Giang whom she has to keep chained in the boat because of his severe mental problems. She believes that living in a house will help her son to regain his strength for walking.

Despite Hai Duong being part of Vietnam’s key northern economic zone, attracting over US2 billion in foreign direct investment, many are still living in poverty. According to official figures, 13.4 per cent of Hai Duong’s 1.7 million people are poor. Many of those living in poverty in Hai Duong include the fishing communities.

Come mid-November, Habitat and international and local volunteers will be assisting more than 200 Vietnamese families who depend on the rivers for their livelihood during the week-long JRCWP 2009.

At the same times, volunteers will also be working with families in need of safe and decent housing at the main project site of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and other sites in Cambodia, Laos and Yunnan, China.

In Vietnam, the JRCWP 2009 project is dubbed Project Re-settlement Of Migrants in Slum Environment or known simply as PROMISE. Habitat for Humanity Vietnam will be helping 296 families in Kim Lai village, Ngoc Chau ward in Hai Duong city to build new homes.

A total of more than 360 families live in Kim Lai with most earning a living by fishing in the rivers. Increasingly, it is difficult for families to make ends meet because of depleting fish in the area due to flood control measures and closure of flood plains and traditional fish breeding areas.

Except for a handful of families in Kim Lai who have houses, the remaining families live in fishing boats that could be as small as 10 sq. m., with six to seven family members sharing the confined space. The river is where families get their drinking water, wash their clothes and answer nature’s call – all at the same source.

The families whom Habitat will be helping to build in Kim Lai village have been granted parcels of land by the Hai Duong provincial government since 2005 for the purpose of resettlement. Without easy access to credit, most of the families were unable to pay for the land, let alone build a house. During the five-day JRCWP, both international and local volunteers will build an initial 20 houses with fired bricks. Construction will continue on the remaining 276 houses after the JRCWP ends. Each single-story house is likely to measure 35 sq. m. with a living room and a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathing-cum-toilet area.

Preparation of the site has commenced with the first test build likely to take place before May 2009.

As with HFH Vietnam’s regular programs, microfinance services will be provided to the families to enable them to build homes with adequate access to clean water and sanitary toilets, electricity and other features such as roofs for rain catchment. HFH Vietnam has established a partnership with the Hai Duong government and the local Women’s Union to implement the project. There are plans for a community center to be built at the site to cater to families’ educational, vocational and health awareness needs. Childcare support is also envisioned to allow women, who are the traditional caregivers, to be trained in alternative income-generating activities. Families will also receive training in financial management.

The developments in the months to come will be exciting news to the families living in a few communities who are potential Habitat home partners. Currently, the families are living in four communities located about 1 km. to 5 km. from the Kim Lai site. Among the communities, Phu Luong is the nearest to the JRCWP 2009 site. There are about 40 families living in Phu Luong with those who are relatively better off living in chipboard houses built on stilts nearest to the main road. The poorer families live closer to the river and some even in concrete boats which are permanently on land. Le Thi Canh is among the residents here, living with her three grandchildren in a bamboo house about three meters from the river.

Sixty-year-old Canh had lived in a boat since she was born but moved to a bamboo house after her grandchildren grew older. Living on a boat carried risks. “During bad weather, children can fall into the river. I have to watch them carefully so that they don’t fall.” The concern over such accidents is the reason why some children have ropes tied around their waists or their shirts with the ends of the ropes secured to the boats. If the children do fall into the water, they can be easily pulled out.

Her son and daughter-in-law are away, fishing in different rivers. Canh stopped going with them as living on a boat for extended period was “not good for my health”. Her son and daughter-in-law will return to Phu Luong four or five times a year and give her one to two million dong (about US58 to US116) for living expenses. But it is often insufficient because of her grandchildren’s school fees and other needs. Occasionally, she has to borrow about 500,000 to one million dong from her neighbors.

Whenever the heavy rains bring floods, she will put her meager possessions on the raised platform bed and wait for the waters to subside. “I dream of living in a permanent house. It would be safer and I would be very happy,” said Canh. For Canh’s neighbors Cao Van Giang and his wife Hoang Thi Sen, their boat was their home for the most part of their lives until Giang suffered a stroke in 2002. Like 80-year-old Giang, his nine children used to fish from their boats but have switched to using their boats to transport sand collected from the river bed. The elderly couple has 40 grandchildren but only two of them are going to school as “we have no money and the children stay on the boats,” said Giang.

Over in the chipboard house of 54-year-old fisherman Doan Van Tien, a transparent water canister stood sentinel-like near his two grandchildren who are sleeping soundly despite the drone of voices. Tien’s wife Hoang Thi Theu explained that the water from the canister, which costs 18,000 dong per canister, is meant for their grandchildren. The adults will drink water from the river. It is not uncommon for the adults to fall ill with flu and stomach aches after drinking the river water. The family’s cure is to buy traditional herbal medicine from the local market as “we have no money to go to the doctor”, said Theu.

Whenever his house becomes flooded, Tien and his four grown-up children who live with him will move to their boats. One of Tien’s sons is a fisherman while another two sons collect sand in their boats. The average family income ranges from 400,000 to 500,000 dong a month.

Living in a house means that “it’s safer and more convenient for my grandchildren to go to school,” said Theu. “Life now is okay but I wish to have a house of my own. Even though the house is my own, the land is not. Sometimes, people come here to try to take back the land,” she added.

Theu also has her six grandchildren’s future in mind. “I wish my grandchildren will have a different job, more stable and less dangerous, from their parents. I believe a good house will help my grandchildren to have that kind of future.” A permanent house will be her legacy as she can leave it to her children.

For Vu Xuan Dai, it is a solitary life on his boat since his wife died several years ago. “Born on a boat, I have lived on a boat for four generations,” said the 68-year-old who lives in the Cau Cat area. He leaves his boat about two to three times a week to visit his neighbor whose boat is connected to Dai’s by a bamboo pole. Water gets into Dai’s boat during the rainy season but he stays in. “It’s safer to live in a house,” Dai conceded, “I can use clean water and I don’t have to worry when the storm comes.”

He also sees the health benefits of living on land. “If I live in a house, I can walk around as a form of exercise. My grandchildren can also visit me.” None of his six grown-up children is living with him though two sons are living in boats near to his.

One of Dai’s neighbors, Dao Thi Lan, can identify with his wish for exercise as she has been living on a boat for 30 years. “We go to shore about four to five times a week, to go to church or the market. My legs don’t feel good when I walk on land because I sit in the boat all the time.”

In the Au Thuyen community, where potential Habitat home partners can be found, Vu Thi Tam is well aware of the security of a house after living in a boat for several years. “I feel safer in the house. It’s dangerous to be on a boat during a storm.”

The 32-year-old Tam lives with her fisherman husband, two young sons and mother-in-law in a makeshift house converted from a sand storage space. Her family shares the area with two other families. Tam and her family sleep on an elevated concrete floor with thin walls made of woven bamboo.

The “house”, which has no doors, faces the mud-colored river which receives the city’s waste through a canal. Tam’s family drinks water taken from the river, even though it gives them stomach aches and diarrhea. “It’s hard to buy clean water and we don’t have the money.” Tam’s husband earns about 300,000 dong a month from fishing, a sum which she said is not enough for food.

Tam hopes her two sons, aged four years and 13 months respectively, can receive education and be able to live in a safe and decent house on land. To that end, “I’m willing to learn something new, a new skill that will help support my family”, she said.

Perhaps a house means more to Tam’s neighbor Nuyen Thi Thai than anyone else. The 52-year-old fisherwoman lives with her teenage son Le Van Giang in a house boat along the Sat river. Her boat is tied together with two other boats and moored about 20 m. from the shore.

According to Thai, 18-year-old Giang suffers from severe mental problems since he was born. She was compelled to chain both his hands to a compartment in the center of the cement boat. “When he was a baby and a child he was easy to care for but as he grew up he became more difficult to control,” she said.

“If he were left by himself he would throw things into the water and break what he could. We had no chance but to chain him for his safety and ours.”

“When I took him on land he is only able to stand for a short period of time before he could not stand any longer and sits on the ground. He has no strength in his legs to walk.” Thai makes a simple living from fishing in the river using small bamboo traps that are attached to a length of rope dropped in the water. Using a 10-foot metal boat with oars she sets the traps with pieces of pork fat with a hinged door that is forced open. Once the fish take the bait the trap door closes. Thai sets out early in the morning, about 2.30am, to lay more than 100 traps. In the early afternoon she rows out to where she has a float set to show where the lines are.

“It is very difficult to catch fish near here now since many of the fisherman use electricity to stun the fish. Of the 100 traps I use I can only catch around seven to 10 small fish which I can sell at the market for 10-20,000 dong.”

For the past few years the local government gives Thai 180,000 dong per month for her son to be used for food and medicine.

At 7am each morning, Thai cycles for 2 km. to the local market where she buys vegetables and meat for between 10,000 and 16,000 dong per day. “On the days when I cannot catch anything, we may eat only a boiled egg with rice.”

“I dream of the day when we can step off of this boat and live in a house. I believe that if he can get on firm land and get some exercise he would be able to gain the strength to walk again. To have house would mean a security in our lives we have never had before,” said Thai.

Since 2002, HFH Vietnam has served more than 4,200 families with improvements in housing, water and sanitation facilities through housing microfinance services. Habitat first started operating in Da Nang on the eastern coast and then moved south to the Mekong delta. Habitat now works in six provinces of the country, venturing north to the capital Hanoi in mid-2008.