Researchers criticize Seawatch in Indonesia and Thailand: - Serious lack of competence
By Kim T. Loraas and Harald Eraker
With the support from NORAD and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (UD) of more than 100 million kroner in total, Oceanor's Seawatch technology has been exported to Indonesia, Thailand, India, and Vietnam. The technology, which consists of sea buoys with measuring devices for, among other things, weather, wind, ocean currents, and waves, has been launched as an environmental project for sea surveillance.
However, several experts in Norway, both within and outside the NORAD system, have been very critical towards the Oceanor project.
It has been claimed that the Seawatch technology is too complicated for the Asian recipient countries in question to make use of it (see NorWatch no. 11/96 and no. 8/97).
Now similar strong criticism is raised against the Oceanor projects by the DNMI researchers Øyvind Sætra and Dag Bjørge. In this context they both speak as private persons.
Lack of competence
In 1996, Oceanor and the Norwegian Meteorological Office (DNMI) made an agreement to co-operate on technology development in connection with the Seawatch concept. As a consequence, Oceanor engaged DNMI to receive four guest researchers in 1996, two from Indonesia and two from Thailand, who were to stay at the institute in Oslo for one year.
According to the terms of reference, DNMI were to teach the persons, who were affiliated with the Seawatch projects in their respective countries, to handle two numerical weather and wave forecast models, named HIRLAM and WAM respectively.
Meteorologist Dag Bjørge and oceanographer Øyvind Sætra were among those who were given the responsibility for following up the four persons. However, they soon suspected mischief:
- It soon turned out that the visitors did not have the expected competence at all. According to the contract with Oceanor, researchers would be sent to DNMI. To handle the numerical models and carry out independent research, one needs at least research competence, but the visitors hardly had any relevant university experience, Sætra says, emphasizing that he is speaking as a private person.
"We made a shocking experience with the Seawatch project in Indonesia and Thailand."
Meteorologist Dag Bjørge and oceanographer Øyvind Sætra
Had to do it themselves
According to Sætra and Bjørge, the four persons from Indonesia and Thailand did not succeed in acquiring very much knowledge in the field of study during their entire year at DNMI.
- Instead of a guest research stay, we carried out an adapted training programme. The DNMI researchers had to do the job which originally had been assigned to the guests, says Bjørge.
Both the DNMI researchers shake their heads in despair and characterize the research stay of the Asian guests as a complete failure. According to the agreement with Oceanor, the four persons should acquire the necessary knowledge and experience to be able to set up and use the numerical models when they returned home. This, however, did not happen.
- In August 1997, Sætra and I visited Indonesia and Thailand to organise courses on WAM and HIRLAM. The participants of the courses represented most of the institutions that are involved in the Seawatch project. Our impression of lack of competence in this field was further confirmed during our visits. We are talking about big, complicated programmes which must be operated by experts if they are to be of any use, says Bjørge.
The criticism of the researchers has been sent to Oceanor in writing, and the company has sent a lengthy reply to NorWatch, written by the company's regional sales manager in Asia, Per-Erik Sørås. In his reply, he ascertains that the DNMI researchers have spoken about the part of the project which includes numerical models, and that particularly meteorological modelling/forecasting was a failure:
"The statements are these persons' personal opinions, and in our view they are completely mistaken. Possibly the background of these statements is that they were not aware of the objective of the project within this field."
In his letter, Sørås explains that originally the Seawatch concept did not include any meteorological models. But because experience showed that "such data were not easily accessible" from local meteorological offices, it was "decided to include a sub-project which aimed to investigate whether the models were suitable," and to introduce this to the staff of the meteorological offices of Thailand and Indonesia, respectively (TMD/BMG).
However, Sørås denies that the sub-project is crucial to Seawatch's objective:
"As the above shows, the aim of the work on meteorological modelling was limited to this, we never planned to upgrade the TMD or the BMG to a DNMI level. However, one believed that the experiences from this sub-project might guide a future improvement of competence, that is, in future projects."
For the use of Seawatch, it was "accepted that the necessary input data would come from traditional forecasting and from available global meteorological models. This was considered acceptable at the present stage..."
In Sørås' opinion, it is "irrelevant" whether the Thais and Indonesians who visited DNMI in Oslo for a year were able to conduct "independent research on a Ph.D. level".
"Naturally one may wish to co-operate with persons and institutions who are on the same professional level as, or on a higher level than, that of the researchers in Norway. However, it is a fact (as NorWatch is also aware of) that Indonesia and Thailand are developing countries where the professional level in some fields is backward in relation to Norway", Sørås continues, adding that "after all, that is why we give foreign aid".
This is the reason why Sørås is "concerned about the professional arrogance which seems to be expressed by Norwegian researchers in the NorWatch article".
Sætra and Bjørge, on the other hand, are not only concerned about the lack of competence.
- We made a shocking experience with the Seawatch project in Indonesia and Thailand. Nobody from the meteorological office in Indonesia worked at Seawatch's head office where the working stations with HIRLAM and WAM are placed; they were sitting in an office in the other end of Jakarta. In Thailand, the two persons who visited us at DNMI had been promoted, one of them had become a naval officer and would be on naval mission for the next year, Sætra says, pointing out that if there should be any hope for success, the four persons would have to spend 100% of their working time in the Seawatch project.
- Two years after the commencement of the project only three Seawatch buoys had been placed in Indonesian waters, some of them were placed so near land that we can not understand that they will have any use in weather forecasting, Bjørge adds, once again emphasizing that he is talking as a private person.
- The Seawatch buoys must be maintained at least every third month. The intention is that the recipients should handle this. Our impression was that local maintenance had almost been given up in Thailand, and that everything will be left unattended when Oceanor leaves the country, Sætra says.
Installed long ago
Oceanor's regional sales manager rejects the researchers' criticism. According to Sørås, the sea buoys have been "installed long ago, in accordance with the plans".
He also denies that the buoy maintenance in Thailand is not satisfactory, saying that both Indonesia and Thailand have allocated funds for the operation of the Seawatch project in their 1999 budgets.
In addition, Sørås writes that the intention never was that the meteorologists should work physically in Seawatch's offices. According to Sørås, the contact between the Seawatch offices and the meteorological offices is still good, and the experts "exchange information continuously, and they also meet frequently."
After the DNMI researchers returned to Norway, they wrote an internal memo to the management, in which they gave an account of the problems and their experiences with the Seawatch project. Neither Oceanor nor NORAD were informed about the researchers' criticism by the DNMI management.
Later on, Sætra and Bjørge have read the criticism against the Seawatch project which was presented by NorWatch earlier, and they think that their experiences support previous claims that the high technology project is unsuccessful.
- In addition to HIRLAM and WAM, the Seawatch project also uses numerical models for ocean current forecasts and oil slicks. But to make use of these models for warning purposes, they must be based on wind forecasting from a weather forecasting model. Some time ago we received an e-mail from one of the guest researchers from Thailand. He has only spent a small part of his time on Seawatch after his stay in Norway, and his request shows that he has no knowledge of HIRLAM, Sætra says, showing the print-out of the letter.
On 30 October last year NORAD's "Project Review Seawatch Indonesia" was presented. The evaluation of the Seawatch project was led by head of division Svein Ording in the Coast Directorate aimed at assessing "status, progression, and experiences of the project in relation to plans and objectives".
But according to Svein Ording, his team, who visited Indonesia in August last year, could not evaluate the actual working of the project, "because it had not been started yet".
For example, the report shows that only three of the sea buoys had been installed, even though all the ten buoys should have been placed at that time, according to the plans. More than a year after Ording's report, Oceanor still thinks that the installation of buoys is going according to the plan.
- We investigated Indonesia's national priorities and plans with regard to the use and protection of marine resources. Their plans are very good, in fact, they are ahead of us, Ording says.
In spite of the fact that Ording's team did not have the opportunity to assess whether the Seawatch technology is functioning in practice, the report brags of the project without restraint. It repeatedly concludes that "there is every reason to believe" that when the different parts of the project are in place, it will work as intended.
The report states, among other things, that personnel from the meteorological office in Indonesia has been, and is being, trained to calibrate the HIRLAM model for local conditions, in co-operation with DNMI.
According to Sætra and Bjørge, this is not correct.
- Calibrating the HIRLAM model was one of the things the Indonesians were supposed to have learnt during their stay in Norway, the researchers ascertain.
Svein Ording, on the other hand, says to NorWatch that he has no reason to doubt that he has been given correct information from the Indonesians. However, he does not rule out that misunderstandings about details may have arisen due to language difficulties.
- If there are any errors in the report, I am naturally interested in knowing about them. But I feel comfortable that in general our report is correct, he says.
Per-Erik Sørås also thinks that what is stated in Ording's report gives a true picture of the actual facts, and that any disagreement from the researchers' side "must be on a linguistic level".
When confronted with the DNMI researchers' strong criticism of the project, Ording answers:
- I hear what you say, but I neither can nor will comment on it. I have no qualifications to say anything about weather forecasting. You are talking about a small part of the project. But in our view, the competence within the Seawatch project is very good. We talked with the persons who visited DNMI, and they were very satisfied with the stay in Norway. We found that the information from the Seawatch buoys reached the users...
- But you write in your own report that only one of the six users represented in the Technical Committee of the Seawatch project was connected to the information channel from the Seawatch buoys when you were in Indonesia?
- Yes, that is correct. But I have no doubts that the Indonesians have the capacity to handle this when the project gets started, Ording answers.
It may be added that Svein Ording is the man who was engaged by NORAD to assess Oceanor's Seawatch project in Indonesia before NORAD supported the project with 30 million kroner.
At that time, Ording gave the green light to the project. When inquired about this, Sørås answers sharply: "An insinuation that Ording does not have a clear conscience is such a gross and factually untrue allegation" that he asks NorWatch to reassess our seriousness and motives.
Altogether, Per Erik Sørås questions NorWatch's role in this case. He begins his letter by accusing NorWatch of working "politically (on a general basis) to stop technology transfer projects to developing countries", and thinks that this is to "slow down development and keep these countries on a continued, underdeveloped level in relation to the industrialized countries."
In November last year NorWatch visited Indonesia and met Seawatch employees and interviewed Sørås - before the criticism from the DNMI researchers was known to NorWatch. Now Sørås thinks that NorWatch deliberately failed to disseminate the information from that time:
"To us it seems that the general satisfaction expressed by our customer (...) did not fit into the negative picture which NorWatch obviously wants to present, and that it is therefore omitted."
No change of opinion
Oceanor's regional sales manager also writes that the basis of the criticism is incorrect:
"DNMI in no way shares the view which their researchers reportedly have presented to NorWatch. As far as we understand, the researchers will dissociate themselves from what NorWatch is using as a basis for the article."
But Dag Bjørge and Øyvind Sætra reject that they have dissociated themselves from their criticism. Director Arne Grammeltvedt at DNMI comments on the case in the following way:
- We have given our guests from Thailand and Indonesia the competence they were qualified to acquire, and thereby done our job satisfactorily. Beyond that, we have no opinion on this matter, and we do not want to comment on what is going on with Seawatch in Thailand and Indonesia.
With regard to Oceanor's claim that DNMI in no way shares the views of their researchers, Grammeltvedt says that both Oceanor and NorWatch interpret DNMI's statements to their own benefit.
Cancellation of phase 2?
Indonesia's 5 and 25 years plans presuppose that the first phase of the project, which ends in March this year, will be immediately followed by a second phase. NORAD's reasons for the review of phase 1 is also that it will contribute to forming the basis of the next phase.
The importance of phase 2 is frequently stressed. Nordic Consulting Group, which was engaged by NORAD to assess Seawatch Indonesia before foreign aid was given in 1995, concluded, among other things, that NORAD should support the project only if the Indonesian government committed itself to allocating the necessary funds for phase 2.
But whether financing of phase 2 will be included in future Indonesian national budgets, remains to be seen.
- It is a regrettable fact that that the Indonesian national economy is presently quite weak. One can not rule out that when phase 1 comes to an end, Indonesia does not want to continue with the project. Who knows, after all this is a pilot project, Ording comments.
In its report, Ording's team outlines two possibilities: Either, there will be no phase 2 at all; in this case, phase 1 will have to "live on its own". Alternatively; "if and when" phase 2 is launched, NORAD is advised to carry out an "independent assessment" of phase 1 before planning and support is pledged.
In some years
During NorWatch's visit to Indonesia, Sørås confirmed that Oceanor's people will return to Norway when phase 1 is completed early this summer. Because of the economic situation in Indonesia, phase 2 of the Seawatch project has been postponed, but according to Sørås it is still on the agenda:
"Here we would like to add that Oceanor is participating in a working group which is discussing these problems. Now we think that phase 2 will start in 1-2 years."
Sørås concludes that both Thailand and Indonesia "wish to develop the co-operation with Oceanor and DNMI to move on". Indonesia is so interested in the ocean current and weather forecasting models that they wish "to visit DNMI in February this year to discuss a closer co-operation (...), but they know that such co-operation cannot start in the near future. Thus, the conclusion with regard to Oceanor's project is: The project has realised its objective."
- It will not be a surprise if Indonesia does not grant funds to the Seawatch project. The situation in Indonesia is very difficult and a matter of concern, says Stein Torgersbråten, adviser in NORAD's department for trade and industry.
When asked what are his comments on the criticism raised by the DNMI researchers, he answers:
- If what you report is correct, it is disquieting, and it may jeopardize parts of the project. We have to discuss this when we carry out the final assessment of phase 1. I will also discuss this with Oceanor, Torgersbråten says.
- However, I am surprised that this information has not surfaced until now. We make a note of this, he continues.
- But Ording's report and the conclusions of the DNMI researchers are contradicting each other, Torgersbråten ascertains.
Oceanor, on the other hand, thinks that NORAD's comments are not surprising, as long as they are based on NorWatch's "groundless criticism".
"A bucket down the throat"
As NorWatch has reported in earlier newsletters, the "groundless criticism" has been raised from many quarters. For example, a former environmental adviser in NORAD said that the project was "the most stupid of all the environmental projects that have been presented to NORAD", and that it is "totally without developmental effect". A local employee of the project in Thailand gave the following characterization of Seawatch: "We needed a glass of water, but had a bucket shoved down our throat".
In spite of this, Oceanor has been given massive Norwegian support for Seawatch through the years. The project was, among other things, promoted by former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland during an official visit to Indonesia in 1995. A letter from the private financing institution Eksportfinans (Export Finance) to the Indonesian government shortly before the visit of the prime minister, states the following:
"Considered the time aspect with regard to the conclusions in the (Seawatch) contract and the loan agreement in connection with our prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland's visit to Indonesia, Eksportfinans has worked out a draft loan agreement for your kind consideration."
Shortly after the prime minister's visit, Oceanor concluded the Seawatch contract. Eksportfinans pledged the project a loan of 80 million kroner, NORAD supported the project with 30 million kroner in the form of mixed credits, while the Norwegian Guarantee Institute for Export Credits (GIEK) pledged guarantees for 95% of the total costs of the project, which amounted to 93 million kroner.
Oceanor in Indonesia and Thailand
In the autumn of 1995, Oceanor signed a contract with Indonesia to deliver the environmental surveillance system Seawatch. Norway is financing the project, which has a total cost of 93 million kroner, with a credit of 80 million kroner through A/S Eksportfinans (Export Finance Ltd.). The project was supported by NORAD with 30 million kroner in the form of mixed credits, while the Norwegian Guarantee Institute for Export Credits (GIEK) pledged guarantees for 95% of the project's costs.
The Seawatch contract with Thailand was made in 1991. The project has a total cost of more than 100 million kroner, and NORAD has supported it with 35 million kroner in the form of mixed credits.
Norwatch Newsletter 2/99