Typhoons, worst foe of farmers, bind 11 nations
''Typhoon! typhoon!'' the radio weatherman announced.
Rice farmers dashed to their paddies to harvest as much of their crops as they could before the storm struck. Bananas were picked hastily, coconuts collected, chickens rounded up, and water buffaloes moved to high ground where they would not drown.
These farmers in the Philippine province of Pampanga saved themselves from absolute poverty by receiving an early warning of Asia's worst, and most common, natural disaster -- a typhoon.
They are some of the first villagers in Asia to receive highly accurate warnings of typhoons. Two years ago, 11 nations in East and Southeast Asia began a cooperative experiment to improve the detection and warning system of these tropical storms under a UN program known as Topex, or Typhoon Operational Experiment.
For the Philippines, the improved warning system is most welcome. Perhaps no other place on earth is hit by as many typhoons as this archipelago nation.
After forming near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, typhoons head northwest, usually hitting the Philippines first, then veer toward Japan, China, or Indochina.
''We are the typhoons' doorway to Asia,'' says Dr. Roman L. Kintanar, director general of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration.
On average, roughly 20 large tropical storms form each year, usually between July and September. Over half gain enough wind strength to be called full typhoons. Four or five typhoons a year strike the Philippines. One, called Mamie , hit in March and left 28 people dead and 2,600 homeless.
With winds up to 100 miles an hour, the storms can cause acute hardship for farmers. ''It is common to have $100 million in damages a year,'' Dr. Kintanar said. In all of Asia, the UN estimates $3 billion in damages a year.
Typhoons can also alter politics. A very destructive one was blamed for disrupting Philippine elections in 1972, leading to martial law under Ferninand Marcos.
''The magnitude of these losses is not acceptable in a world increasingly dominated by fears of future economic disaster,'' a UN newsletter states.
In 1970 the UN General Assembly called upon the World Meteorological Organization, based in Geneva, to find ''ways and means to mitigate the harmful effects of these storms and remove or minimize their destructive potential.''
The typhoon experiment involves scientists and weather officials from 11 nations and bringing together such odd political bedfellows as Vietnam and China. They met in a Japanese satellite land station outside Tokyo for several weeks, tracking typhoons and checking warning systems between countries and within their own countries. The intensive experiment will be repeated this year.
The scientists share techniques for predicting just where a typhoon will hit land and how to warn farmers more quickly and directly.
Photos taken of the storms from outer space by a Japanese satellite are now transmitted to six other Asian countries. In the Philippines, officials advise farmers on how to prepare for typhoons, which crops are best to grow in storm-hit areas, and when and how to listen to warnings broadcast by radio. Many such broadcasts, however, are not in the farmers' local dialects. And they still lack credibility among many villagers.