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Conflicting Drowning Death Numbers Obscures Trauma Faced by Rural Cambodians

Seth Sreymom looks at the photo of her daughters on October 13, 2019. They died of drowning. (Kann Vicheika/VOA Khmer)
Seth Sreymom looks at the photo of her daughters on October 13, 2019. They died of drowning. (Kann Vicheika/VOA Khmer)

Seth Sreymom heard that a wooden house was being demolished nearby in Takeo province’s Bati district in April last year. The mother of three, who runs a small scavenging business, would have usually taken her children along when scouring for materials to sell.

However, this time she knew she would be dismantling zinc roofs and decided to leave them with their grandmother. An hour later, Seth Sreymom remembers a relative running towards her with devastating news.

“My younger sibling came and told me that my children had drowned,” she said, speaking to VOA Khmer in October 2019.

“I almost fainted.”

Seth Sreymom’s loss is unfortunately a common occurrence in Cambodia. Local media stories frequently report drowning deaths, often involving unsupervised children swimming or playing near lakes, ponds and rivers.

International and local organizations have consistently flagged the issue, pointing to the dearth of oversight at public water bodies, minimal warning signs, a lack of swimming skills and economic constraints that make it hard for parents to supervise their children’s activities.

The government has denied the issue is major, adding that number of deaths is very small. But, advocacy groups have continued to push the government to implement better policies to prevent any drowning deaths.

Back in Takeo, Seth Sreymom was sitting at the family’s home, where two framed photographs of her children are hung on the walls.

The 30-year-old villager barely had any time to deal with the loss of her husband, who died in a road accident four weeks prior to the drowning incident, when she heard the news of her children.

Seth Sreymom said she wished she had instructed her daughters to be careful around the water. She even wonders if she should have taken them with her, even though it was unsafe.

"If I had known that my children were in danger, I would have brought my two daughters with me,” she said.

There has been a longstanding debate over the scale of drowning deaths in Cambodia. A 2012 UNICEF report, citing a 2006 survey of more than 67,000 households, reported that there were between 1,800 to 2,090 drowning deaths in the Kingdom annually.

The 2006 survey also showed that more than 90 percent of the fatal drowning accidents, involving children aged under 17, went unreported at local healthcare facilities.

Additionally, a 2014 World Health Organization report, titled “Global Report on Drowning,” revealed there were 723 drowning deaths in Cambodia, involving children aged under 15.

However, advocacy groups do not have more recent data about drowning deaths in Cambodia, with stakeholders saying it is very expensive to conduct such research frequently, relying on data from more than a decade ago.

The government also rejected these estimates and figures, instead providing statistics that are the polar opposite. Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron rejected the UNICEF report’s findings that there were around 5 to 6 drowning deaths in Cambodia daily.

The minister, instead, said there were 5 to 6 drowning deaths annually, a tiny fraction of UNICEF’s estimates. He said the ministry’s information was collated from reports sent in by school principals, who were reporting if they had been drowning deaths among the student body.

“I don’t know where they get their figures from,” he said. “The report I receive is directly from the schools.”

Minister Naron said schools were instructed to provide safety information about swimming in water bodies and prevented children from being unsupervised during school hours.

“We asked the schools to help educate children and tell them not to go to an area if they didn’t know how to swim or not to swim recklessly,” he said.

“Secondly, they are told to go everywhere together and not to go alone.”

Health Ministry spokesperson Ly Sovann said that statistics showed 13 drowning deaths in 2018, including cases involving adults. He said that the ministry received 13 drowning deaths in 2019, all linked to flooding-related accidents.

Despite the Education and Health Ministry denying these figure, local media stories for the first two weeks of January 2020 reported at least 10 children dying from drowning, where in one case three, 13-year-old girls died in Tbong Khmum district, Tbong Khmum province.

Caroline Lukaszyk, consultant and a regional data coordinator at World Health Organization, said many countries, especially in the low- and medium-income brackets, were reluctant to acknowledge that drowning deaths were an issue.

“When we work with the government at the top policy-making level, usually the first reaction is ‘drowning is not a priority for us, we have a priority issue’,” she said.

The WHO staffer added the international group had instituted 10 steps to reduce the number of drowning deaths, including fencing around water bodies, public awareness programs, and trained first aid and rescue teams.

Soun Si, Trapaeng Krolanh village chief in Takeo province, said officials did provide information to prevent drowning deaths, but there was a lack of training on how to conduct rescue operations.

This leads to the use of rudimentary, and traditional methods to resuscitate drowning victims, he said.

“As we all know, they just lift up [the children] holding their feet up and shake them up and down,” he said. “We lack people with the correct knowledge on how to save those who drown.”

In nearby Kandal province, Thorn Nary said she could have used any first aid training to save her son in November, who drowned in the river behind their home in Kbal Koh village.

Much like Seth Sreymom, Thorn Nary had to leave her three children with their grandparents, when she had to leave for work; at a casino in Phnom Penh.

At some point, one of her children sneaked out the back door and was playing in the river when he drowned, a relative told Thorn Nary.

“If I could turn back time and use any money to trade the life of my son back, I would do it,” he said. “Honestly, I just lost the son I loved the most.”