When Seth Vannareth needs to predict the future, she takes a blank piece of paper, turns on her computer and selects a program that brings up a tangle of hundreds of colored lines on the screen. These are the tools of her trade: “If I don’t have my computer and a piece of paper to draw on, I can’t warn people about natural disasters,” she explained.
Seth Vannareth is the director of the Meteorology Department at the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology; the colored lines on her screen allow her to predict the world’s changing weather and how it will affect Cambodia.
While she squints at the computer screen, her right hand is busy copying down the graphics. “If I am careless for just a second, I will make a mistake in my predictions,” she explained. “It’s not a joke—I’m drawing lots of different interlocking lines.”
The short-haired, bespectacled 38-year-old heads a department of 58 men and 16 women, who together map the temperature, humidity, wind speed and rainfall in and around the country.
As a member of a nascent professional class rebuilding itself after years of war, Seth Vannareth stands apart. But as a woman scientist, she is even more unusual, a role model for young women who see few good options for themselves in city life.
In 1984, Seth Vannareth began working at the ministry. Three years later she won a scholarship to study meteorology in Russia. This was when the really hard work began. Learning to forecast the weather is demanding, Seth Vannareth explained, because “you need a very good knowledge of mathematics, chemistry and physics.”
She returned to Cambodia in 1992, and has since traveled from Japan to Paris and the Philippines to Hong Kong to participate in various meteorology workshops.
Seth Vannareth and her team work with information gathered by instruments around the globe. A satellite provides information about the conditions arriving from overseas, while antennas in 14 stations across the country measure information about the weather in Cambodia. Temperature gauges are used to predict whether cold, hot or temperate conditions are on their way.
Seth Vannareth takes information from each local station and converts it into a graph. She has to keep the old graphs somewhere safe so she can keep track of weather patterns by comparing each new one with the previous day’s records.
“I examine temperature, humidity, wind speed and rainfall at all times,” she said. “I can’t afford to be careless.”
The offices of the Meteorology Department are spread over two floors. There are computers everywhere, and the walls are covered with pieces of paper filled with the same pattern of tangled lines Seth Vannareth copies down from her screen each day.
But the department is suffering from a severe lack of resources. Some of the instruments were left behind by Russian experts who worked in Cambodia in the 1980s. More recently, Japan and other donor nations gave the department a few pieces of modern equipment, but the offices remain chronically under-equipped.
“I made a mistake in the weather forecast in 1999, but it wasn’t my fault—it was because the department doesn’t have enough equipment,” Seth Vannareth said. “But if we had better instruments, we could easily predict large storms, droughts and other natural disasters.”
Lack of equipment is fairly easily solved. But the department is also facing a potentially far more serious shortage.
There are currently no colleges or universities in Cambodia that offer courses in meteorology. This means that the lack of experts qualified in the subject will, at some point in the future, reach a crisis point.
There used to be a system of scholarships for students to study meteorology in universities abroad—between 10 and 20 grants were made available to budding young weather girls and boys each year. But the scheme was stopped due to lack of applications.
For years Seth Vannareth has asked herself why so few students are interested in the discipline she has dedicated her life to. But now, having worked at the Meteorology Department for more than 10 years, she has finally worked it out. “You can’t earn any extra money in this profession, apart from your state salary,” she explained.
Hard-bitten pragmatism seems widespread among the next generation of professionals studying in Cambodia’s schools and colleges. Alongside their dreams of future power and wealth, a career in meteorology has little appeal.
Chun Daroth is a second-year chemistry student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The 24 year old considers meteorology a challenging career choice: In addition to the broad scientific knowledge required, a meteorology student must also be able to speak excellent English in order to study abroad, he said.
“I’ve heard local universities don’t have meteorology courses, because the subject isn’t popular with students,” Chun Daroth said. “It’s because the profession can’t earn you any money—except your salary. No one wants a job that can’t earn them any money,” he concluded.
Some university students were surprised that such a subject even existed. “It’s the first time I’ve heard of this subject,” said Sao Sophy, a student at the National Institute of Management.
“If I select a subject to be my profession, I have to know I can earn good money,” she said. “It’s important to study a skill that can get us a good job with a high salary in the future.”
The Royal University of Phnom Penh is planning to revive its meteorology program, as its enrollment figures for maths, chemistry and physics have risen in recent years. But even Pit Chamnan, the rector of the university, seems to have been affected by the subject’s bad reputation.
“I acknowledge that meteorology is an important subject, but I wonder why so few students are interested in studying it, even though they can get scholarships to study abroad,” Pit Chamnan said. University budget constraints are currently in the way of restarting the course, he added.
Despite all this, Seth Vannareth still thinks her profession has a lot to offer, especially when compared to more physically demanding work. “Meteorology is a subject in which you work with computers—it isn’t laborious work,” she explained. And meteorology is a subject that will always be in demand, she added: people will always need to know about the weather. She hopes more students share her outlook in the near future.
Absorbing oneself in the science of meteorology may improve the nation’s health, but, if Seth Vannareth’s example is anything to go by, it won’t bring you a happy love-life. The 38-year old is as yet unmarried; she said she is too busy investigating the weather to find a husband.
“I don’t have time to be interested in men,” she said. “Sometimes, when the weather is unusual, I have to get up at midnight and go to the office—particularly in the rainy season.”
When she finds someone who will allow her to find her own balance between work and love, Seth Vannareth said she might consider getting married. “Love and marriage are very important for Cambodian women, but if someone wanted me to choose between love and work, I would have to choose work,” she said.