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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - And the outlook for Thursday (your guess is as good as mine...)

And the outlook for Thursday (your guess is as good as mine...)

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.

Says

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.

Says Andrew

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."

"The government

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

stolen."

"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

irrational.

"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.

He adds:

"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

collapsed."

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.

An LWS

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

Cambodia..."

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

important."

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.

Civil Aviation

Undersecretary Pok Sam Ell said he welcomed any kind of help.

In an

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."

"But

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

help.

He said the information coming from Cambodia was unreliable and

that without any foreign help, all the infrastructure set up by LWS would

collapse.

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.

Ly Chana

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

organization."

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."

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