Storms rage over Filipino forecaster exodus

Five senior meteorologists in the Philippines have just resigned to work abroad, highlighting a worrying trend.

Manila, Philippines – Inside the Philippines’ state weather bureau, forecasters huddled around large monitors tracking powerful Typhoon Halong as it swirled menacingly to the east of the country this week, dumping heavy rains across large parts of the country’s densely populated Luzon Island.

Satellite images flashed green across screens, but it became clear the country had avoided a direct hit. The scientists were relieved, but another kind of storm has been raging among their ranks – one that could also exact a heavy toll.

Five of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration’s (PAGASA) most senior meteorologists had just resigned to work abroad, highlighting a worrying trend of skilled professionals leaving the country for better opportunities.

“This has been a concern. They have been going in groups,” Esperanza Cayanan, chief of the PAGASA’s weather division and head of the Philippine Meteorological Society, told Al Jazeera.

“We have regular training [for new meteorologists], but of course, experience counts a lot. They leave for personal reasons, greener pastures abroad, because if you compare our basic salaries with those abroad, it is very low,” she said.

She said based on official data, 33 of PAGASA’s best people have left in the past decade alone, lured to work in countries such as Dubai and Qatar where they earn about five times as much.

Low salaries, tough challenges

Veterans of the bureau say the job here can be extremely challenging. Located on the Pacific Ocean, the country gets battered by at least 20 storms and typhoons – some of them deadly – each year, leaving thousands dead and large areas devastated.

We want to raise the status of our meteorologists in the Philippines. There is no lack of good people to train; the problem is keeping them here.

by - Esperanza Cayanan, PAGASA's weather division chief

But while the job is perhaps one of the most critical in the Philippines, salaries have remained relatively low, starting at just over $400 per month for a job that requires long hours and sometimes public humiliation. The government, too, had for a long time neglected the agency, and until only a few years ago forecasters had to rely on antiquated technology.

The state-owned building housing PAGASA, which means “hope” in Tagalog, is also decades old. Its walls are cracked and plastic buckets are positioned along a dark staircase to catch water dripping from the leaking ceiling.

Some senior forecasters publicly complained that salaries were also often delayed. Some of them had, at times, missed work because of they could not pay the bus fare.

In 2010, President Benigno Aquino scolded the nation’s chief forecaster on live television for what he said was an erroneous forecast, months after Typhoon Ketsana flooded over 80 percent of the capital Manila and killed over 400 people.

“That was a wakeup call for us,” said Cayanan, but stressed that little could get done due to failing equipment.

Shortly after, Aquino poured more money into the agency. New Doppler radars were bought, the weather system was computerised and more training was ordered for the scientists, even as salaries remained low.

“We want to raise the status of our meteorologists in the Philippines,” she said. “There is no lack of good people to train; the problem is keeping them here.”

Brain drain

The brain drain reflects the Philippines’ poor sense of priorities. While the country has benefited as one of the region’s fastest-growing economies, the government has yet to invest heavily in its top resource – its large pool of talent and manpower.

For years now, many professionals, doctors, nurses, seamen, and others have chosen to work and live abroad because the Philippines’ much-touted economic miracle has yet to translate into jobs on the ground. The problem is starting to be felt at home, with the government acknowledging earlier in the year that for the first time in decades there is now  a serious shortage of skills in some “hard to fill” professions, including architecture, aviation, and chemical engineering.

The government has said it has a large enough pool of weather forecasters currently being trained to replace those who have left, and Aquino has promised further reforms.

But in a country still reeling from last year’s Typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful cyclone to hit land in history, many remain sceptical.

“We are now more prepared and have made our own adjustments,” said Val Barcinal, head of the civil disaster response unit in Marikina, a suburban city east of Manila that is a perennial catch basin for flooding. “We invested in our own monitoring systems and can access the main weather computers by the government, but the experience of the forecasters count a lot. We still rely on them for accurate data.”

For senior forecaster Rene Paciente, 57, the job remains more than a profession – he sees it as a calling. He said he does not blame those who leave, but stressed that he was optimistic many others will take their place.

“I stayed because I want to help our country and to serve our people,” the 29-year veteran of the job said. “If we give them good, accurate warning, we can save those who we want to evacuate. That is enough for me.”

Source: Al Jazeera