Punters watch as the boat races get underway on the Tonle Sap in the 2016 water festival. (Photo: UCA News)
The Cambodian government has canceled this year’s water festival, which usually attracts crowds of hundreds of thousands, to help contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic amid a drought with water levels striking record lows.
The government-friendly online news portal Fresh News said it had seen a letter ordering the cancellation. No reason was provided but the dispatch quoted analysts as saying “the decision was made to curb Covid-19 and save the state budget amidst the pandemic.”
That decision followed the suspension of flights from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines as the number of inbound passengers testing positive for the virus began to spike in recent weeks.
Cambodia has so far avoided a cluster outbreak of Covid-19. Of its 273 confirmed cases, almost all came from overseas. There have been no deaths and 225 people have recovered.
The water festival, which was due to take place from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1, marks the traditional end of the wet season when the Tonle Sap, a great lake and tributary that feeds off the Mekong River, reverses course. It swells as the mid-year monsoon picks up and then changes direction as the waters recede.
However, rainfall from May to July, the first three months of the wet season, was down about 70 percent as the drought entered its second year, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), made worse by climate change and upstream dam construction in Laos and China.
Ten years ago, a bridge stampede at the end of the three-day event claimed 353 lives. The festival was canceled a year later as a result and again in 2012 in response to the death of the revered King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
The violence and mass protests that followed general elections in 2013 resulted in yet another cancellation while a half-hearted attempt was made a year later and a smaller version held in 2015 after Prime Minister Hun Sen abandoned the boat races, again citing a severe drought.
The festival made a return in recent years but it is the prospect of a further Covid-19 spike that worried the government most, analysts said.
Three of the recently confirmed cases were Cambodian men returning from Russia through Malaysia to Cambodia on July 19 before flights from Kuala Lumpur were suspended. Another was a Cambodian woman returning from the United States through South Korea to Cambodia.
On Aug. 12, Cambodia allocated a budget of US$1.2 billion to bolster its economy, which is struggling to cope with the impact of Covid-19 and the withdrawal of some trade preferences by the European Union in response to this country’s human rights record.
It has also imposed strict conditions upon entering the country including coronavirus tests on arrival and a requirement to lodge a $2,000 deposit to cover any potential medical costs.