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Better warnings on the Mekong

A new system planned for Vietnam's main river may help prevent flood fatalities.

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The rains started early this year, and the murky Mekong Delta next to Tran Thi Kieu's home rushed up to her waist. She and her husband decided it was time for the family to seek shelter elsewhere.

"Usually we don't move because it doesn't go higher than this," says Mrs. Kieu, pointing to the middle of her thin calf. But this year, the worst flooding in four decades lasted from April to this month, showing that such old-fashioned barometers as calves, knees, and waists can prove devastating.

But many Vietnamese could soon have a better sense of when to seek safer ground with the installation of a radio-based coastal storm warning system for fishing boats at sea.

Funding for the system, a novelty in a place where villagers can be seen banging together flimsy wooden canoes along the riverbanks from which most people here fish, bathe, and do their dishes, was announced on the eve of President Clinton's trip to Vietnam, which ended last week. The Washington-based US Agency for International Development (USAID) will give the Vietnamese government $1.4 million in technical equipment, primarily to install control towers along coastal areas and equip fishing boats with weather radios. The goal: to get residents to rethink the custom of waiting to see how deeply submerged their living rooms get before deciding to move to safe shelter. "We have to have some kind of gauging system that will look not just at the height of the water, but also at the flow," says John Geoghegan, the head of disaster management in Vietnam for the International Federation of the Red Cross, a key actor in distributing USAID's flood assistance. "If we have that system in place, we can ... have up to six hours to evacuate people, rather than 20 minutes."

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