The Rainmakers: Cloud Seeding in the UAE
March 4, 2021
March 4, 2021
“We are just helping the clouds to precipitate more”, these are the words of Omar Al Yazeedi, director of research, development and training at the National Centre of Meteorology (CNM). The process of cloud seeding, which the United Arab Emirates has implemented since the 1990s, consists of enhancing an existing cloud to produce a considerable amount of rain. The decision to employ this method comes from the arid weather that affects the country and the increasing water demands of the population (the UAE water consumption per capita is one of the highest in the world).
On the other hand, the amount of rain and the exact location of where it is going to rain cannot be predicted or decided and the infrastructure in the country is not weatherised. This is why the UAE had to witness various flooding in its main cities.
Cloud seeding involves the placement of different substances, which contain salt and act as condensation nuclei, into clouds in order to increase the precipitation rate. The two most used cloud seeding procedures are cloud seeding via air and cloud seeding from the land. The first method consists of releasing into the clouds the condensation nuclei through flares that are installed on an aeroplane. The second procedure is almost the same: the ground generators fire the flares in the clouds from the ground.
The UAE was one of the first countries in the Middle East to adopt this system, also used in other countries like China, India and Israel. It is mainly employed to fight weather extremities and droughts, since according to the UN, by 2025, about 14% of the global population will be affected by water scarcity.
The UAE annually experiences less than 100mm of rainfall and without intervention, it would face rapid water scarcity, due to its arid weather and its desertic surface. The UAE started employing the desalination method in the 1970s, but then realised it was more expensive than the cloud seeding process: 1 cubic meter of water gotten from desalination costs AED 220 (around £40), instead, from cloud seeding it costs AED 4 (around £0.7).
The cloud seeding operations, which mainly take place in areas close to the mountains, is estimated to have increased the rainfall by 30-35% in clear atmospheres and 10-15% in dusty atmosphere.
Unfortunately, it is not all sunshine and rainbows. The cloud seeding procedure has many drawbacks, which often are ignored by the country.
According to Dubai Police statistics, during heavy rain events, the number of accidents exponentially grows. During the rain that affected Dubai on the 11th of December 2019, the Dubai Police reported 154 road accidents in 10 hours. Between the 9th and the 12th of January 2020, the local authorities in Dubai reported 1,880 car accidents due to the heavy rain.
The infrastructure in the UAE is still not suitable for heavy and long rain and some areas are still not linked to the general network of rainwater drainage. This lack of proper infrastructure causes each time it rains flooding all over the country, also in the main cities, such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It is still unknown if cloud seeding is the main cause of flooding, but certainly, it does not help to prevent it.
The flares fired in the clouds contain chemical substances. When the chemicals are dropped in the air, they are uncontrollable and could damage the environment and the animals when they reach the ground. The impact of cloud seeding on the environment will probably be seen many years from now.
The performance of cloud seeding is still in question since its effectiveness is not 100% guaranteed. As shown in the chart above, the number of operations and the amount of rainfall are unrelated: more cloud seeding operations do not mean more rain. Cloud seeding cannot control the “when, where, how much and how quick” it will rain. Quantifying and predicting the impact of cloud seeding is still impossible.
Even though the government keeps stating that cloud seeding is not the cause of flooding, it is hard to believe it, due to the unpredictability of the procedure. On the one hand, cloud seeding can prevent water scarcity and supply a high amount of water demanded by the population. On the other hand, this procedure still has to reach optimal efficacy: when the country started structuring itself, it did not anticipate this amount of rain and consequently, it now creates chaos and discomfort to business activities, population and environment, due to the lack of proper infrastructure.
Image: Star of Mysore (link)
Rachele Momi is a graduate in Middle East Politics at SOAS and is currently studying Intelligence & Security Studies at Brunel University. Her research is mainly focused on the Middle East region and cyber warfare.