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A woman cleans up vegetation from the Tonle Sap river as racing boats prepare for the Water Festival
A woman cleans up vegetation from the Tonle Sap river as racing boats prepare for the Water Festival yesterday afternoon. Vireak Mai

Much at stake for festival

Just days away from the first Water Festival since the tragic stampede of 2010, authorities yesterday received a dampening reminder that safety will be an issue not just around the water but in it.

During qualifying stages of the festival’s boat races, a team of more than 70 competitors were plunged into the Tonle Sap river when their boat capsized.

“The boat was not stable and sank … because too much water was flowing in,” said Phorn Pheas, 43, a rower from the Phnom Penh-based team. “We did not row well.”

Three police speedboats were used to rescue the rowers, who treaded the murky waters while hundreds looked on in surprise from the riverbank near the Royal Palace.

No one was injured, but the incident was a chance for the authorities to test their safety procedures ahead of a festival that will bring with it high levels of apprehension, as well as the usual excitement, when it arrives in the capital on Wednesday.

The last time the three-day festival was held, 353 people died in a stampede on an overcrowded bridge leading to Koh Pich.

But a tragic chapter in the boat races’ history serves as its own reminder of what can go wrong.

In 2007, five Singaporean rowers drowned when their boat capsized in swirling waters on the first day of races. Seventeen others needed to be rescued.

But marine police believe they have the safety of the hundreds of rowers competing this year covered.

Pes Lim, director of the Phnom Penh Municipal Navy Office, told the Post yesterday that more than 50 speedboats, manned by more than 200 officers, will be on hand to rescue rowers whose boats capsize during the frenetic races.

“We are prepared and ready,” he explained. “Today, our navy forces rescued 76 rowers and dragged a sunken boat ashore.”

Emergency kits including life jackets – which the vast majority of competitors do not wear – and rope will be on hand, Lim added. Forty helicopters will be available to assist if needed.

In response to concerns about crowds at the water’s edge – an estimated four million people have attended previous festivals – authorities announced late last week that they will deploy almost 10,000 security personnel.

The new second Chroy Changvar Bridge, north of the palace, was opened on Saturday in time to ease traffic. And City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said yesterday that more than 200 portable toilets would be provided for festival revellers, especially those who had travelled from the provinces.

Bystanders watch and cheer racing boats on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh in preparation for Cambodia’s first Water Festival since 2010
Bystanders watch and cheer racing boats on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh in preparation for Cambodia’s first Water Festival since 2010, when 353 people died. Vireak Mai

However many remain concerned about safety, among them opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua.

The 2010 stampede and the fireworks accident that killed 22-year-old Na Kry Daro last week showed that police safety procedures needed to be more transparent to ensure they were adequate, and investigations needed to be independent, she said.

“It’s not the number of security, it’s how they are trained, who is in control, how the commands are passed on,” she added.

To begin lead-up festivities yesterday, Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong presided over a religious ceremony at the river’s edge as teams began hauling their boats into the water, ready for competition.

Boats soon sped through the water – and the vegetation that remained scattered across the river’s surface. Some rowers commented that the plants were a hindrance, and they made for unsightly viewing.

The boats, on the other hand, were an early taste of the Water Festival’s colour and life. In various hues and with stunning synchronicity, rowers – sitting, kneeling or standing – propelled their vessels through the water towards the finish lines.

Afterwards, as some competitors chanted, sang, danced, blew whistles and beat drums, their boats pulled up to the riverside where a captivated audience awaited them. In coming days, the crowds will be bigger and the stakes higher – for everyone involved.

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