Water Festival Races Canceled Due to Floods

Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday announced that the government had decided to cancel boat races at next month’s Water Festival due to the worst flooding the country has seen in over a decade.

He also said the floods had now claimed the lives of 247 people, up from the 207 deaths announced Monday, while an additional 10,000 hectares of farmland have been destroyed.

“The number of dead is a very concerning increase,” the premier said, reading from a prepared statement after a meeting of the Council of Ministers. He said the rising waters had now in­­undated 390,000 hectares of rice paddies, with 190,000 hectares completely destroyed.

The premier also announced new donations to help the country cope with the devastation: $7,833,000 from China and $325,000 from Japan.

Mr Hun Sen said the government itself would be putting a total of $100 million from its own 2010 and 2011 reserves toward relief efforts and rehabilitation. The government had already an­­­nounced it was giving $55 million, though few details have been forthcoming on how it has been spending these dollars.

As for the Water Festival, set for Nov 9, 10 and 11, the premier said concerts and related events could proceed as planned. But he said the high waters still coursing past Phnom Penh would make boat races down the Tonle Sap River, the heart and soul of the festival, too dangerous.

“The water level is too high, which is a risk to the boat racers and participants,” he said. “In Phnom Penh, the entertainment can go ahead as normal, but there will be no boat racing. The concerts, the King Father’s birthday and other national holidays can be conducted as usual.”

Boat teams typically spend weeks before the holiday preparing elaborate boats for the races, an expensive proposition that Mr Hun Sen said the country could ill afford this year.

“It takes at least a week for racers and participants to come and go back after the festival, so it would be an obstacle for cultivation,” he said. “If we don’t spend that money on racing boats and other expenses, we can save it to spend on rehabilitation.”

Held every November, the festival marks the Tonle Sap river’s annual reversal of its course, when it starts flowing from the Tonle Sap lake into the Gulf of Thailand. Just as predictably, the festival draws well over a million Cambodians from the provinces into Phnom Penh each year.

But as a very product of the weather, the festival has always been at its mercy.

Heavy floods kept many Cambodians away from the festival in 2000 but were not so severe as to press organizers into canceling the event altogether. In 2004, a prolonged drought that wiped out thousands of hectares of rice fields stemmed the year’s crowds.

Last year, the festival’s last day was marred by a very different kind of tragedy when a stampede killed 351 people. Mr Hun Sen at the time called the incident the largest single loss of life in the country since the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge.

The Nov 22 stampede occurred after thousands of festival-goers walking on and off Koh Pich island across a short, two-lane bridge connecting it to the mainland, packed themselves into an immobile mass. A government investigation concluded that the stampede was triggered by people in the crowd who began yelling that the suspension bridge was about to collapse. But some opposition lawmakers and non-government groups faulted the investigation for its lack of independence and for failing to consider how or why organizers allowed the conditions leading up to the stampede to develop.

No officials involved in organizing the event were ever reprimanded.

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