Cloud seeding: Facing the challenge of a water crunch

Ahmed Maged
12 Min Read

CAIRO: As the world’s major water resources rapidly run out and fears that future conflicts will be over water security, a small group of Egyptian specialists believe that the best way to ward off the specter of an impending water crisis is a little-known technology called cloud seeding. Simply put, this means prompting clouds to produce rain.

Other researchers, however, argue that cloud seeding can never be a viable option in Egypt, despite the fact that other countries in the region have already begun experimenting with the relatively new technology.

The detractors cite the prohibitive cost, low probabilities of success and indefinite results, and, not surprisingly, the political issue of monopolizing clouds.

The technology

Cloud seeding is a very complex process. In simple terms, it involves the introduction of other particles into a cloud serving as cloud condensation nuclei to boost the formation of rain. These particles are ice crystals of different kinds, which are added in the form of silver iodide.

The equipment needed for cloud seeding includes special aircraft that fly above the clouds in addition to data processing systems to receive and process signals from weather radars and cloud gauges. The aircraft are also fitted with injectors which pump the required chemical particles into the clouds.

A special station is also required to track down the specifications and movements of clouds through weather radar, which cost no less than $1 million each. Sufficient amounts of chemicals and specialized technicians are also indispensable.

Although many remain skeptical about the feeble results, which they say don’t justify the huge costs, high success rates are believed to have been reached in originally rainy regions or mountainous areas with a topographical diversity, allowing the vertical growth of clouds.

Egypt vs. Arab countries

The majority of water-impoverished Arab countries, located mostly within a semi-arid zone, cannot ignore this technology.

Since the 1990s serious experiments have been carried out in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and even Israel, but reports have yet to be released on the success or failure of the trials.

According to reports, half the water reserves in Saudi Arabia have already been depleted, leading the oil-rich Kingdom to launch a three-month experiment this year at the cost of SR 10 million.

Turkey’s control over the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have driven both Syria and Iraq to seek Russian cloud-seeding technology to make up for their water shortages.

And in Libya the attempt to produce industrial rain through Italian technology is meant to complement the country’s Great Man-Made River Project, while Morocco dabbled with cloud seeding to increase rainfall levels.

Is Egypt entering the race?

Following a visit to China in 2005, delegates at the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs presented a proposal to the government to encourage experimentation into cloud seeding technology.

“Cloud seeding isn’t only important but is the only hope for Egypt whose way out of the impending food and water crisis as well as the housing crunch and overpopulation is an ambitious plan to reclaim the Western Desert, argued Dr Sherif Eissa, professor of chemical engineering and former director of the National Research Center in Cairo (NRC).

“More than 80 countries worldwide are experimenting with cloud seeding, but the problem is that there is an intentional reservation about exchanging expertise and information, Eissa told Daily News Egypt.

“Some of the technology is rated as top military secrets, he said.

In warfare, he alleged, industrial rain can be used as a strategy to destabilize targets before launching an attack. The technology can also be linked with weather modifications causing drought in several parts of the world.

If applied in Egypt, he continued, the introduction of cloud seeding means that millions of acres in the Western Desert can be reclaimed.

“In the 13th largest country in the world, this could revolutionize agriculture, demography and urbanity. You will be creating a new country.

Eissa points out, however, that the obstacles to using this technology in Egypt are twofold: first, the political dimension and reliance on technologies from the developed world, which is “becoming notorious for exploiting poor countries on the promise of generating rain in the latter’s arid zones.

The second obstacle is the climate and topography of Egypt and the rest of the region, which are marked by the infrequency of the natural formation of “seedable clouds, one of the basic components of traditional industrial rain, along with wind speed and the types of chemicals used.

Eissa suggests that the only way to overcome the monopoly over technological know-how is for each country to devise its own cloud seeding methods.

“Although this is difficult, we must be fully aware that an approach that works in one country may fail in another, all depending on the nature of the land and climate, he said.

He recounted how surveys on wind direction and speed in Egypt’s Western Desert showed that the conditions there were optimal for operations.

“The main challenge is how to accumulate the clouds, a step that will have to rely heavily on the humidification of the desert surroundings.

Desert experts are skeptical

“I don’t imagine how feasible it is to attempt to green the entire Western Desert, Dr Ismail El Bagouri exclaimed.

A desertification consultant at the Desert Research Center in Cairo and member of the Science and Technology Committee, UN Convention for Combating Desertification, El Bagouri believes it’s neither possible nor desirable.

“To change the face of the desert is like taking on nature, he stressed.

Research relating to industrial rain in Egypt is still nascent, he added. “I don’t think this is a worthwhile technology in a country where the preponderance of clouds and levels of rainfall are minimal.

For him, other mega projects should take precedence. He cites the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, a mammoth underground water reserve that stretches across the lengths and widths of the Western Desert.

“Cloud seeding is a technology that hasn’t been fully tried and tested even in relatively rainy countries like Syria where natural rainfall in its northern parts could reach 800 mm in winter.

Research on underground water is a priority, he believes, adding that Egypt must entertain projects aimed at pumping water to deprived areas. “We can create green spots or new oases within the desert, but I doubt we can improve on nature through cloud seeding or any other technology, El Bagouri said.

Dr Mohamed Abdou Daif, former director of the Desert Research Center’s water and desert land department told Daily News Egypt that the outcome of experiments [on cloud seeding] in Libya, which is similar to Egypt in both climate and topography, has never been declared. “I heard there is a big commercial aspect to it. It’s too early to take this step. However, Eissa insists that it’s about time to start. “Neither Libya nor any other country will ever reveal details. I am familiar with the water situation in the desert but desert experts will also tend to agree that it is still a big mystery whether underground water reserves are renewable or not. As long as this question continues to go unanswered we must seek new options, he said.

Research on Egypt

A study conducted by Syria s Ministry of Agriculture revealed that industrial rain in the Nile Valley would fight off drought, increase water levels in dams and boost depleting underground water reserves.

But the study did not detail the optimal location for implementing this technology. The Western Desert, according to specialists, would be a remote possibility, judging by the fact that high chances of success are restricted to originally rainy countries like Indonesia, for example, where 76 percent of the rain is produced this way.

An American meteorological study concluded that cloud seeding is ideal in Sinai and
the Red Sea where mountain chains are available to attract the right kind of clouds.

“But unfortunately, these areas aren’t rich in either population or agricultural activities, so unless we create the right infrastructure there, cloud seeding will be a waste of effort and cost, said Dr Mohamed Nasr Alaam, head of the hydraulic and irrigation department at Cairo University’s faculty of engineering.

Cloud-snatching, a conspiracy theory?

Dr Essam Khalil El Neel, a researcher, argues in a research paper that cloud-hunting by Egypt’s neighbors is behind the unusual dryness that has marked the seasonal khamaseen sandstorm since 1998.

Previously, rain showers used to follow the khamaseen to wash away dust and provide the Bedouin who live in the northwest coast with new water reserves.

But, according to El Neel, the dearth of rainfall over the past 10 years is because the neighboring countries have either attracted the clouds away from Egypt to the east or suspended them before they were carried by the wind from the west to Egyptian terrain.

With Libya and Morocco in the west and Syria and Israel in the east, all undertaking cloud-seeding experiments, Egypt is under threat of losing its share of rainfall, El-Neel claimed.

Yet reports by Egypt’s Meteorological Authority contest claims of cloud theft, arguing that only the wind, not people, is responsible for driving clouds from one place to the other. Reports also denied that rainfall had decreased in the northwest during the khamaseen.

Eissa, however, insists that we need to put our heads in the clouds.

“We can’t rule out the theft theory completely, he said.

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