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Science

Artificial rain eases Asia's droughts but heats up tensions

China advances drone tech, while India calls weather modification a threat

Lightning strikes across the sky during a thunderstorm in Guangzhou. China preparing for changing weather patterns.   © Reuters

BANGKOK/TOKYO -- As a heat wave pushes temperatures up to nearly 50 C, a recent video released by the United Arab Emirates shows a city in the arid nation lashed by torrential rain -- the result of a national cloud-seeding operation.

The program seen in the video, which was reported by the U.K.-based Independent newspaper, is just one example of emerging economies, particularly China, making their own weather to address the threat posed by droughts and other extreme events made more likely by climate change.

China in January conducted a successful maiden flight of its first weather modification drone, the Ganlin-1, whose name means "sweet rain." The unmanned vehicle can operate more efficiently than the manned flights China had used in the past, and at a lower cost, according to Beijing.

Ganlin-1 was developed as part of an ambitious weather modification plan announced late last year. Beijing aims to cover 5.5 million sq. kilometers, or 60% of the country's landmass, with its artificial precipitation program by 2025, which would make it one of the largest such projects in history. China hopes to become a top global player in the field by 2035.

Thailand's Department of Royal Rainmaking and Agricultural Aviation has made weather modification a priority, ramping up its budget in this area by 30% over the past five years. It plans to set up seven rainmaking centers by next year, as a step toward a goal of eliminating water shortages in 98% of drought-affected areas by 2037.

Thailand in March announced a three-year agreement with Indonesia to share weather modification expertise and promote further research.

The field of weather modification is decades old, with the U.S. developing technology to artificially induce rainfall after World War II. More than 50 countries had embarked on weather control programs in 2017, according to the World Meteorological Organization, and innovations such as drones have accelerated the pace in recent years.

The technology has attracted more attention amid rising economic losses from extreme weather events. Artificial rainfall has the potential to mitigate droughts that can cause famine, surging food prices and potentially political instability.

The need is growing more urgent. The number of natural disasters per year has more than tripled since the 1970s and 1980s. Economic losses from these events averaged $170 billion per year over the past decade, with emerging countries in Asia, Africa and South America bearing the brunt of the damage.

Ethiopia conducted a demonstration of cloud-seeding technology in April, according to state-run media, to boost agriculture in the African country. "Such techniques will make dry places more livable and productive," said Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

A water-starved landscape in Africa. Artificial rainfall has the potential to mitigate droughts.   © Reuters

The technology is still largely unconstrained by international rules. It is also not without critics, who have raised ethical concerns about the uncertain side effects of tinkering with the weather, and the risk of serious environmental damage if used indiscriminately.

The Swedish Space Corp. announced in late March that it had canceled a test flight for a solar geoengineering project led by researchers at Harvard University, amid an outcry from environmental and Indigenous groups. The project looks to investigate a potential method of slowing global warming: spraying aerosols into the stratosphere 20 km above Earth's surface to reflect sunlight back into space.

Even cloud seeding, a relatively established technology, can be difficult to steer in the desired direction. A prolonged spell of heavy rain hit the Chinese city of Qingdao in 2018, according to social media posts, and some have linked the phenomenon to the government's use of chemicals shortly before to disperse clouds for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Weather modification has the potential to ignite cross-border tensions as well. When China announced its plans late last year, media in India and elsewhere called it a serious threat that could lead to international conflict.

In a poll conducted in April by the Pew Research Center, more than 70% of U.S. adults expressed concern about using solar geoengineering and cloud seeding before their impact is fully understood, underscoring the importance of transparency.

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