3am, Potchentong Airport - A satellite picture shows heavy thunder storms over
Burma and Thailand, predicting heavy rain and warming oceans. Suddenly a message
splits the eerie silence of the night in a small observation hub under the
control tower at Pochentong airport: "Please send requested weather forecast
documentation for VIP flight Phnom Penh to Beijing."
The message is sent
by two Australian meterology experts through the GTS (global telecommunication
system) to Melbourne and Tokyo - the response will take four hours to get to the
hands of the pilot; the plane is scheduled to leave at 7:30am.
meterologist Fritz Herry, who has been reorganizing the meteorological service
on behalf of AIDAB (Australian International Development Assistance Bureau) for
the past three months: "We are doing this job on the request of the
Under-Secretary of State, Pok Sam Ell, who asked us to forecast the weather for
these VIPs and for the return of the King tomorrow."
But such aviation
weather forecasting is only a privilege for VIPs and Royalty.
Duncan, an engineer in meteorology at Lutheran World Service: "All aircraft
operating in Cambodian airspace are flying without meteorological data which is
crucial in aviation."
"The most basic safety [in aviation] - visibility,
wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity, pressure, height and cloud
cover - is not provided at Potchentong airport."
shouldn't request this service only for VIP or Royal flights, but for commercial
flights as well," he said.
He adds:"The cable relaying the information to
the air traffic control has been severed for months. There is not much
coordination between air traffic control and the observers downstairs. The pilot
just looks at the windsock and guesses pressure, temperature and wind speed. All
the basic instruments for measuring essential meteorological elements were
"This is complete confusion," adds Herry. "We are in an
international center for civil aviation and we don't have any direct
communication link. We don't have a telephone. With a telephone, we could get
the information in ten minutes."
"We can tune into the weather broadcast
and get forecast charts to give to the pilot. But this way of getting
information is very old and most of the time we get poor reception. What the
pilot usually does is to get information from Bangkok. But by the time he does,
it's already too late."
Cambodia lacks the basic precautions. There is no
radar to predict dangerous weather phenomena and the previous meteorological
infrastructure set up by the Vietnamese and Russians was ineffective and
"When I first arrived in Cambodia, there were theoretically
nine meteorological stations," recalls Duncan. A survey found the exposure of
these stations was inadequate. A meteorological station should always be clear
of any obstructions and surroundings. There were buildings all around the
stations that were set up by Vietnamese and Russian experts.
"All the instruments were largely broken and the staff had minimum training and
no resources - paper, pencils, salaries. They didn't look after the instruments.
They just guessed. No communication. Basically, all the structure had
Since LWS started rehabilitating the meteorological
infrastructure in 1992, five stations have been relocated back to the Pochentong
airport, in Kompong Som (Sihanoukville), Battambang, Siem Reap and Stung Treng
provinces. Two other meteorological stations will be set up in Koh Kong and
Ratanakiri provinces because without data from these areas, explains Duncan, "we
cannot produce a proper weather forecast."
"Meteorology doesn't serve
only aviation, but fisheries. Koh Kong province is especially subject to typhoon
and bad monsoonal weather. For example, when the fishermen are caught at large
in a strong monsoonal surge, they have to make a run to the shore often without
their fishing net. And then the Thais come with their big fishing boats and
steal their nets."
International organizations don't seem concerned at
the country's precarious meteorological system - even though LWS will be pulling
out of this program next June. Nobody is queuing up for a takeover.
representative Philip Wijmans says:"It's a big, big problem. We are setting up
an infrastructure that is viable. It is up to the Cambodian government to
request any assistance and to pursue the program. Our role as a NGO was very
extraordinary [because] we have been assisting the central government through
their network. We don't want to work through the government. Not any longer. We
bought everything. We spent a lot of money [$700,000]. We always paid the bills.
I'm sure there are [some] people in the government that would rather continue
the way we've been doing. But, for us, there are better ways to help people in
Duncan says many people think meteorology is "a big joke,
but they don't understand that for the rehabilitation of the country it is so
He said UNDP and other organizations asked for information
"but don't give any financial support."
Last year the UNDP - when asked
by the Swiss-based World Meteorological Office why meteorology was not included
for UN assisatance - said it "wasn't a priority."
On the other hand, the
World Bank was very positive, recalls Duncan, but their support was dependant on
a government request before any money was given.
Undersecretary Pok Sam Ell said he welcomed any kind of help.
interview with the Post early last week, he said: "it's impossible to have a
civil aviation without meteorology. This is a matter of safety."
before taking any money in the national budget, we will try to get in touch with
some organizations to pursue the program. We've already contacted France and
Japan. But we're still waiting for an answer."
Ly Channa, deputy director
of the Department of Agricultural Hydraulic and Hydro-Meteorology at the
Ministry of Agriculture said Cambodia lost its membership in the World
Meteorological Office during the '70s and therefore got no foreign
He said the information coming from Cambodia was unreliable and
that without any foreign help, all the infrastructure set up by LWS would
The lack of meteorological data also affects neighboring
countries; last February a Cambodian delegation flew to Thailand and China to
set up links in accordance with international safety rules.
said: "The members of WMO think that if Cambodia can improve its meteorological
service, it will help them as well. But the problem is that we can not adhere to
this world organization because we don't have the money to pay the fees. WMO
asked us to pay the fees for the twenty years we've been absent from the
Duncan said: "Cambodia is the only country in Southeast
Asia where there is a "hole", where no "real time" meteorological data is sent
from the country. Because of this "hole", Thailand, Laos and Vietnam have many
problems in producing a forecast. They need Cambodian information to compare
flight forecast and track tropical cyclones. At the moment, they are guessing,
interpreting the information that is coming from Cambodia. Without this
information, the global forecasting modules - up to six days in advance, are
inaccurate in this region."
In Bangkok, the general-director of the
Meteorological Department encouraged the Cambodian delegation to approach Samart
(a Thai-owned telecommunications company) to set up a telecommunication
satellite link, with free Cambodian access to the Thai Met Office for the
exchange of information.
"Because Cambodia can't afford to pay the
enormous telecommunication bills. Now it's up to the government to make an
arrangement with Samart".
As the Thai director of meteorology put it:
"Thailand puts a lot of money into meteorology because one weather related
disaster costs more than all the operational expenses of the department. A good
meteorological service can help to minimize the damage both to human life and
economics in the country."