BANGKOK -- It took only a second for the murky floodwaters swamping parts of Asia to swallow Nguyen Phuoc Hien's baby. His 3-year-old daughter had been playing happily while her aunt studied, but somehow, the girl slipped quietly outside the family home deep in Vietnam's southern Mekong Delta.
When Hien's wife returned to the shack from feeding the pigs and realized her youngest child was missing, "she was in a panic looking around," he recalled. "Our neighbors helped us look for her. Her body was found an hour later in the canal near the house."
Children make up around a quarter of the nearly 800 deaths reported since July across Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines, according to the United Nations. The region has been ravaged by some of the worst flooding in decades, but drownings are a huge unreported epidemic in Asia. Every year, an estimated 240,000 children up to 17 years old die — mostly because the majority of kids simply never learn to swim.
That annual number is roughly equal to the total deaths from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but day-to-day water deaths rarely get attention.
"Those (in the tsunami) were counted because they drowned in a space of six to eight hours in the region, and everyone was just stunned because the number was enormous," said Michael Linnan, technical director of the U.S.-based Alliance for Safe Children in Bangkok, who has studied child drowning. "But the reality is that in that the 364 days before that, an equal number of mothers and children had drowned as well. But they drown one at a time and not in a disaster setting, so they weren't counted."
During excessive flooding, it's easy for children to accidentally get in over their heads while playing or wading in filthy water where it's impossible to see what dangers lurk beneath each step.
Some fall into fast-moving canals or streams in their yards or villages, while others lose their footing on porches or windows, falling into waters surrounding their houses — sometimes at night. Often their disappearance goes unnoticed because parents are busy trying to salvage livestock, crops or meager belongings vital to the family's survival.
"You have very little dry land and you have massive population movements," Linnan said. "It doesn't take very long for a child to slip away from an already harried mother or older sibling who are trying to schlep all the belongings. It takes only two or three minutes for a child to drown."
Monster seasonal monsoon rains have overwhelmed swollen rivers, dams and canals in the region, and back-to-back typhoons and tropical storms have hammered the Philippines, China and Vietnam. Some 4 million acres of Thailand have been inundated in the country's worst flooding in a half century, and the waters are creeping deeper into Bangkok, an anxious capital city of 9 million barricaded behind walls of sandbags.
In Vietnam's Mekong Delta, 49 of the 57 deaths since August have been children, according to the national flood and storms control department. In neighboring Cambodia, at least 80 children have died in severe flooding there, while more than 50 have been killed in Thailand, all mostly from drowning, according to the United Nations. Myanmar also has suffered bad flooding, but no clear estimates on child deaths are available.
"It's painful to see that many kids drown," said disaster official Le Van Hung of Vietnam's worst-hit Dong Thap province. "All of them came from poor families where their parents had to struggle to make ends meet and did not properly watch over their children in their flooded homes."
Linnan said about three-quarters of children across Asia never learn to swim, despite living in a tropical region crisscrossed by rivers and canals. But even though drowning is the top injury-related cause of death among kids, it typically does not receive much attention or aid because only about 15 percent to 25 percent of water deaths ever get reported to health systems. Death certificates are often not required, and children who drown are simply buried. Because they aren't taken to hospitals or clinics first, their cause of death is never counted. That, in turn, means childhood drowning deaths are grossly underestimated regionally.
"Sometimes there's more water than land" where children grow up, said Justin Scarr, drowning prevention commissioner of the Belgium-based International Life Saving Federation, who says fear of water is linked to culture in many areas where his organization is now teaching swimming skills. "Generations have associated water with drowning and so they've avoided basic things like learning to swim."
Community education is also key to reducing deaths, since half of all drowning deaths occur in children younger than 5 who are too small to swim. Research has shown that setting up village day care centers while parents are busy or working can reduce those deaths by more than 80 percent.
For the Nguyen family in Vietnam, it's too late. The loss they experienced during one minute of carelessness during this year's floods will forever haunt them.
"We did not expect our daughter would drown one day," said Hien, 31, who earns the equivalent of just US$100 a month fishing and doing odd jobs. "We are devastated by her loss."