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This year’s dangerously long dry season has yet to properly break. Heng Chivoan

Lack of rain gauges putting weathermen at disadvantage

There’s no doubt that some areas of Cambodia are suffering from an extended dry season, but without comprehensive data the big picture is hard to find

The rainy season has come late and stuttering to Cambodia this year amid concerns that an El Niño weather pattern could turn a worryingly long dry season into a devastating drought.

So how bad is the situation right now? It’s difficult to tell.

Oum Ryna, director of the Department of Meteorology at the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, told Post Weekend that the Kingdom’s weather stations, required for collecting ground data ranging from wind speed to rainfall, were in a sorry state.

Although eight automatic weather stations (AWS) were installed by the Japanese development organisation JICA in the early 2000s, they have failed in the years since.

Some 200 manual rain gauges were also installed throughout the country, though they are only sporadically attended to.

Rainfall is only rarely recorded, even on days with heavy thunderstorms.

It’s not been since the Soviet Union operated manual weather stations in the 1980s, said Ryna, that Cambodia has consistently had a proper network.

“The meteorological services have no [funding] from other sources except the budget from the government,” he said, adding that the government funding was not enough to renovate the AWS.

“Those stations do not operate well due to the environment at the stations … and lack of electricity and transportation, as well as cost for [operation and maintenance],” he said.

As a result, Ryna said his department has limited capabilities to provide much needed weather forecasts. Farmers, who must time their plantings correctly to avoid dry spells during the rainy season, suffer, while the ability to create climate change models for the Kingdom is hampered.

Ian Thomas, a consultant at the Mekong River Commission’s Drought Management Programme, said satellite data alone was not enough to accurately make weather forecasts.

The use of satellites along with radar and ground stations was optimal, he added.

“When you have a satellite, it records the whole planet, but it’s not that accurate unless you have something to check it with,” he said, adding that the Mekong River Commission planned to install five AWS in September at locations yet to be decided.

Accurate weather forecasts could be especially useful this year, said Dr Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC).

While the global weather pattern known as El Niño has been blamed for the delayed rainy season, Saing Koma said historical patterns in the Kingdom suggest that there would be erratic swings between wet and dry conditions this year regardless.

“Fortunately, we have some rainfall now, but in the next one month or two months there could be some problems, according to the calendar, and it won’t rain again until September or October,” he said, adding that the current rainfall could deceive farmers into prematurely sowing their seeds.

“If he plants now and there is no rain in between, it could be death for the crops and they will have to plant again,” he said.

While crops perish in a lacklustre rainy season, the stage could be being set for catastrophic flooding toward the end of the rainy season.

Jan Jaap Kleinrensink, country director for the child welfare organisation Plan International, which includes a robust disaster preparedness program, pointed out that droughts tend to precede major flooding.

“It’s sometimes droughts followed by floods, so there’s a certain cycle.

And as far as we can interpret statistics, floods are likely to happen every five years more or less, and actually so do droughts, so it’s hard to predict, but it will come back again, and again and again.” he said, adding that preparedness was key.

That preparedness requires a functioning weather station network that Ryna said has been long neglected despite his department’s efforts.

“We have tried to work and provide weather information for what we can do for the Cambodian people and respond to the weather disasters gradually increasing year by year,” he said, adding that his department needs more support to fulfil its obligations.

“The weather station is very important,” he added.

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