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Evening the odds with Mother Nature

A government official inspects a sensor aimed to supply farmers with more information about land and weather conditions in Kampong Chhnang province last week
A government official inspects a sensor aimed to supply farmers with more information about land and weather conditions in Kampong Chhnang province last week. PHA LINA

Evening the odds with Mother Nature

About 20 people grinned for the camera as they posed in front of a flagpole-like structure located just off a muddy dirt road in Kampong Chhnang province’s Samaki Meanchey district on Thursday morning.

While a rather unimpressive visual, the agrometerological station is a first-of-its-kind device in Cambodia that provides data which could give small-time farmers in Kampong Chhnang a serious edge over Mother Nature.

After taking a look at the approximately $2,500 assemblage of sensors, thermometers and other tools, officials from the provincial Ministry of Water Management and Meteorology and others gathered inside the ministry’s narrow building. They chattered and cocked their heads toward the PowerPoint presentation that the husband and wife team of Krisanadej and Mullica Jarounstvtasinee – both professors at Thailand’s Walailak University – gave on how to collate data from the installation.

“If they have this kind of instrument, they can know . . . [if] the soil is wet [enough],” said Mullica, a professor of biology at the school’s Center of Excellence for Ecoinformatics, an emerging area of study combining information and ecological science. Cambodian farmers often water twice a day whether necessary or not, she explained.

In addition to collecting data on soil moisture at different levels of the earth – sensors sit at 25cm, 50cm, 75cm and 1 metre below the surface – the agrometerological station compiles statistics including pressure, temperature and total rainfall, Krisanadej Jarounstvtasinee, a physics professor, said.

For decades, farmers and vineyard owners in the United States have used the same equipment manufactured by San Francisco-based Davis Instruments Corp to monitor their crops’ health and determine how much they should water their soil, Krisanadej said. The technology first reached Southeast Asia less than 10 years ago in 2006, when private companies in Thailand began using it.

Since a scourge of floods submerged much of Thailand in December, Mullica said, the government has installed about 400 such stations across the country. Assembly takes just three days.

In Cambodia’s case, local farmers will benefit from the information taken from the installation, said Nop Polin, an advocacy officer for climate change at DanChurchAid, a Danish Christian aid organisation.

“If it is successful, we will introduce it to the government,” Polin said.

After seeing a similar program in the Philippines, Polin approached Walailak University and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, which funded the pilot program.

Thursday’s training taught water management and meteorology officials how to extrapolate data from the station. Those officials will then translate data into terms that average farmers would understand, then hand the information to commune officials who can post the latest agricultural and weather information, Polin said.

The reports should add accuracy to farming tactics employed by locals, who typically only have one crop per year.

“It’s an opportunity to link climate information into farming, Polin said. “We need to combine local knowledge with technology.”

With climate change seemingly extending monsoon breaks during Cambodia’s rainy season in the past decade, the station’s up-to-the-hour outlook could give farmers, who use the calendar to indicate when to plant and harvest crops, a more accurate picture of changing atmospheric conditions, said Yat Sithoeurn, a farmer community facilitator at the Cambodian Center for Study of Development in Agriculture.

“Most people, they just don’t understand climate change,” said Sithoeurn, who will act as a go-betweens for farmers and government officials. “They just know about hot, or cold, or heavy rain or dry.”

Several involved with the pilot program hope that success will lead to data-driven farming while widening the scale of climate change research in the region. But Thursday’s training session stuck to more basic concepts, like which batteries to use on the station’s console, and how to pull the data onto a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

Raising his hand, one of the attendees asked Mullica what if a bird defecated on the ultraviolet and solar radiation sensors?

“Then you’re very unlucky,” she replied with a chuckle.

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