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Australia Awards alumni help disadvantaged Khmer commune to adapt to climate change

Four Australia Awards alumni (two from Hau Giang, one from Can Tho and one from Hanoi) teamed up to win AUD 17,740 Small Grants for a project that resulted in numerous benefits for a poor commune severely affected by climate change in Hau Giang, Viet Nam.

The Small Grants scheme provides support for Australia Awards alumni to conduct activities that consolidate their professional knowledge and strengthen links to Australia. The maximum budget for a proposal submitted by an alumnus is AUD 5,000. Extra funding of AUD 5,000 is available for an activity with each additional alumnus involved, but the maximum budget for any activity is AUD 20,000, regardless of the number of alumni involved.

Under this project, completed in December 2015, 20 rainwater storage systems (each including an 1,000 litre water container and a first flush water diverter system) were installed for 20 poor Khmer families and 5 standard toilets were built for 5 other Khmer households in Luong Nghia commune, Long My district, Hau Giang province. The alumni also gave 550 books on environment protection knowledge to local people and organized 4 training workshops on dealing with household waste management, climate change adaptation and salinization.

The four alumni are Tran Hoang Yen (freelance consultant, Bross Partners Advocates & Solicitors, Ha Noi), Ho Duc Tham (Senior Program Manager, Heifer International Vietnam in Can Tho), Tran Hanh Hien (Deputy Director, Hau Giang Branch of Water Resources Management, Hau Giang Department of Agricultural and Rural Development), and Do Van Dinh, Deputy Head of General-Coordination Division, Hau Giang Provincial People’s Committee).

The idea of the project arose when Do Van Dinh, the team leader, visited Luong Nghia on a work trip and witnessed the acute water issues affecting the local people during the dry season. Luong Nghia, with around 70% of the population belonging to the ethnic minority Khmer, is considered one of the poorest communes of Hau Giang Province. It is also seriously affected by climate change, in particular the increased salinity in the river water. In April 2015, the salinity measured there was over 11‰. Even in the dry season, many people still have to use the water in the nearby canal for their needs, while this source is becoming more and more polluted and saline. Most household toilets are open-aired and built on the canal, thus polluting further the water source.

Luong Nghia resident at Luong Nghia commune

Mr Do Van Dinh (first left), Ms Tran Hanh Hien (third left), Ms Tran Hoang Yen (third right) and Mr Ho Duc Tham (first right) pose for a photo with Ms Nguyen Thi Huyen, an expert of the Hau Giang Environment Protection Branch (second right) and a Luong Nghia resident at Luong Nghia commune, on July 16, 2015.

As the team members work and live in different parts of the country, it was not easy to co-ordinate the project tasks. The problems were overcome thanks to good planning and clear allocation of responsibilities.

The team received much support from the province at all levels, from the Hau Giang People’s Committee, Hau Giang Environment Protection agency, Luong Nghia Commune People’s Committee down to local organisations, including the Youth Union, the Women’s Union and schools, in all aspects of the project. This included: organizing training activities for local people, arranging a painting competition for students, organizing labor for building standard toilets and supervising post-project maintenance. This support also ensures the sustainability of such a community development project.

happy with the new water storage systems

People in Luong Nghia commune were happy with the new water storage systems. Photo: Hau Giang Newspaper.

The local people were very happy after the project was completed. They called it “Project for Poor Khmer People.” Ms. Thi My (village 10, Luong Nghia commune, Long My district) smiled while pointing in the water container given to her family by the project. She told Hau Giang Newspaper, “Nothing in my house is worth more than 2 million dongs except this water container. Its big size helps to store much water. In the past, my family used a much smaller clay container which held very little water and broke all the time.”

Another Luong Nghia resident, Ms Nguyen Thi Thuong said her family used to do laundry and bathing in the nearby canal and a well for drinking water. In the dry season, it was difficult for them to access clean water. With the rainwater storage system, they now have clean water all the year round. Ms Thuong said on VTV5, “I’m very happy with this water container, I can also ensure good hygiene for my children.” (The full VTV5 video could be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bz39LbbgjYU)

Mr Tran Quoc Tuan, Chairman of Luong Nghia Commune’s People’s Committee said, “We will continue to provide technical support to the beneficiaries of the project and encourage more households to follow this model to have access to clean water and standard toilets, so that our commune could meet the New Rural Development criteria of the central government”.

Training workshop for residents

Training workshop for residents of Village 10, Luong Nghia Commune on July 16, 2015. Photo: Tran Hoang Yen.

According to the four team members, their experience in Australia taught them not only professional skills but also the value of cultural diversity and sustainable development. And after they came back to Vietnam, the Australia Awards post-scholarship activities helped them to network with other alumni with similar vision.

According to Mr Do Van Dinh, “Australia is a country of the higher education and cultural diversity and is an ideal place to live and study.” He believes that young people, especially from disadvantaged provinces like Hau Giang, should apply to the Australia Awards Scholarships program, as the program shows care and professionalism toward awardees and alumni.

Tran Hoang Yen said she was grateful to the program for opening a new door in her life and a professional career for her and helping her to become more open-minded. Thanks to the support activities for alumni, she has found friends who could join her in community activities like this small grants project and in the earlier relief campaign for flood-stricken people in Central Vietnam.

For Mr Ho Duc Tham, the Australia Awards Scholarship was an important landmark in his life. During his time in Australia, he learned about conservation activities, adaptation to climate changes, sustainable development and ethnic diversity. He loves Sydney and hopes that one day he will be able to visit his favorite city again.

Ms Tran Hanh Hien lived in “beautiful, modern and friendly” Adelaide during her time studying in Australia. She thanked the Australia Awards Scholarships for helping her to access a modern and high quality education system and learn about diverse cultures from all over the world.

The four alumni are hoping to expand this project, as other Luong Nghia residents and many people in Hau Giang and the Mekong Delta still need financial and technical support for environment protection and adaptation to climate change.

“We hope potential sponsors and individuals, especially other Australia Awards alumni, could help us with ideas and professional support, so that future projects will be made possible and even more effective,” they said.