Vietnamese kids shaking from cold in tremor-plagued district

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Children in Bac Tra My District, Quang Nam Province, walk to school without enough clothing to keep them warm

Many children are going to school without winter coats in Quang Nam Province's mountainous district of Bac Tra My, located 300 to 600 meters above sea level, giving the area an intensely cold climate.

Local families, most of them from either the Cor, Ca Dong, or Sedang ethnic groups, said they had already been accustomed to having trouble affording warm clothes for their children before the construction of central Vietnam's largest hydropower dam was completed.

Their situation has become direr since the Song Tranh 2 dam began operating in late 2011, causing hundreds of earthquakes, the biggest of which registered 4.9 on the Richter scale last December.

Many children have been doing their best to combat the cold by wearing several shirts at once.

Ho Van Lim, 12, said a relative gave him a second-hand coat last year. But now he has outgrown the coat, which was worn out anyway.

His classmate, Ho Thi Lanh, with her teeth chattering from the cold, said that she has not asked her parents for a new coat as she knows they have no money.

The girl said she might not go out this year for Tet, the biggest holiday in Vietnam, which falls in early February this year. She fears it will be too cold without a coat.

A series of tremors have left parents in no mood to work. Many of them are staying home most of the time, abandoning their tiny paddy fields, which never brought much money to begin with.

"There's little cultivatable land, no water either, such a miserable life here. It was already hard for us to be able to feed the children each day, let alone give them coats," said local resident Ho Thi Duong.

"Since the earthquakes, I have never gone far from the house for fear the children would be left alone in danger in case another quake struck. I went to the paddy field once in a while but would return quickly.

"There's nothing we can do to earn money. I did promise my children to buy them new coats, but I have not been able to do that yet," she said.

Locals have been complaining about their poor living conditions after their homes and farmland were taken to make way for the dam. They were relocated into new homes, but little land to grow anything and almost no running water. Many must walk long distances from their homes to fetch water from local streams.

The earthquakes have also sparked an exodus among many companies that have been abandoning the district.

Ho Van Loi, a commune chairman, said, "Before the earthquakes, the lives of locals were already a struggle, now there're even more shortages due to the stagnant supply of work."

Dang Phong, chairman of Bac Tra My District, said at a recent conference calling on people to donate winter coats to local children. "More than ever, coats now mean a lot to the children here," he said.

He also demanded state-owned Electricity of Vietnam, which owns the VND4.15-trillion (US$197.53 million) dam, provide food to locals for two years.

Earlier, the monopoly provided VND3.5 billion ($168,000) in compensation to homes, buildings, local roads and pipelines damaged by the quakes.

Tests revealed that the dam was built directly on a fault line, the water pressure created by the dam increasing the occurrence of tremors in the area.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said in a recent statement released by the government office that the dam is not allowed to  begin storing water again.

The dam stopped operating due to the earthquakes mid-last year.

He asked the Vietnam Institute of Science and Technology to hire leading experts in the field from Japan, Russia and India to assess the dam's safety, its capacity to cause earthquakes, and publicly inform their findings to the local residents and government.

"Residents' lives have been affected, their houses damaged, and the government feels a lot of sympathy for them," the statement cited Dung as saying. He also noted that more compensation should be given to owners of damaged houses.

But he did not mention whether long term support should be given to local people so that they would be able to adjust to the new post-dam conditions.

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