Storm Clouds Over Making Rain

By Sophie le Clue 7 August, 2013

Sophie le Clue gives thought to the geopolitical risks of China's cloud seeding programme

US$150mn cloud seeding programme launched in 2011; set to increase precipitation by 3-5% over next 5 years
Although making more rain is yet proven, regional disputes within China have arisen over cloud seeding
Absence of global mandate means that transboundary disputes are inevitable

According to China RegulationIt is widely understood that geo-engineering, such as weather modification, is on China’s smorgasbord of solutions to water scarcity.
Modification methods such as cloud seeding, are used to disperse fog and clear the air, suppress hail and enhance snow and rain.

Making rain, seems particularly relevant to China’s water crisis and the Administration appears committed to investing in and utilizing cloud seeding technology to this end. Given the potential scale and nature of cloud seeding, are there geopolitical risks?

China leads the way

Following five monthsAccording to China Meteorological Administration (CMA) , by 2006 1,952 cities or counties in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities had conducted cloud-seeding. Throughout the country, 24 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities used special aircraft to enhance precipitation and 7,113 artillery, 4,991 rocket launchers and more than 32,300 people were in service. Between 1999 to 2006, 3,430 flights with 8,745 flight hours, covered an area of more than 3 million square kilometers resulting in a cumulative increase in precipitation of about 250 billion cubic meters2.

Deputy Director of CMA has further indicated that during the 10th Five-Year period (2001-2005), China’s artificial weather modification operations ranked first in the world, having spent 2.2 billion RMB on weather modification

In 2011, China launched its first regional cloud seeding programme at a cost of US$150million. A bold effort to guarantee the wheat harvest, by creating rain in the north eastern regions. In 2012, the CMA announced it would seek to increase precipitation by three to five percent in the next five years – just one percent would amount to 280 million tons of rainfall.

According to China Dialogue, China’s lofty ambitions however may not yield the desired fruit. Despite impressive claims, hard facts about the success of cloud seeding in addressing China’s water woes are indeed hard to come by.

Clear skies makes no rain

The theory of cloud seeding is that introducing certain chemicals such as silver iodide into pre-existing clouds encourages the formation of water droplets and thus fuels rain. Some cloud cover is a prerequisite, so a drought stricken region without clouds is not suitable. Clouds must also be of a particular type.

Although geo engineering and cloud seeding go back several decades, enhanced precipitation is hard to prove scientifically. It depends on having the correct conditions in the first place and the unpredictability of natural weather systems exacerbates the difficulties in gathering proof of success.

Making rain, but with whose water?

China is not the only country apparently sold on cloud seeding. Experts estimate that in the region of 50 countries are involved in various cloud seeding activities . As recently as June 2013, Indonesia famously claimed to have seeded clouds, creating rain to combat the transboundary smog from its infamous forest burning.

Given the transboundary nature of cloud seeding, geopolitics is an obvious concern, even if not widely discussed. In addition to seeding rain, does precipitation enhancement have the potential to seed disputes and potentially conflict?

The crux of the matter seems to be the potential for regional impacts. Whether, as claimed by some, enhancing rain in one area, can change weather patterns elsewhere and deprive downwind communities of their rainfall? In the longer term whether it can even change the climate. Opinions on this seem divided, with some experts dismissing such claims given the large amounts of water vapour in the atmosphere, while others talk of potential disruption of precipitation with consequences for the food supply.

who owns the weather and the clouds, and has the right to the water contained therein? A complicated question at best, since clouds are not static, change shape and drift between jurisdictions

If regional impacts are a possibility, without appropriate governance poor developing nations with no resources to seed clouds are thus potentially at the mercy of rich neighbours with ample resources to manipulate the weather.

A related concern or rather question is: who owns the weather and the clouds, and has the right to the water contained therein? A complicated question at best, since clouds are not static, change shape and drift between jurisdictions.

Another concern is the potential for deliberately harmful deployment of weather modification such as during warfare. A farfetched idea perhaps, but evidentially used in the Vietnam War. Recently in 2011, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad pointed his finger at Europe accusing its countries of plotting to steal Iran’s rain, thereby invoking a drought.

Regional disparities in China – signs of a gathering storm?

“They (‘upstream of the cloud route’) received torrential rains already! Yet they just keep bombing (referring to cloudseeding)! Are there any rules to guarantee our rights ?!”

Meteorological Professional, Zhoukou city

Although reports of actual transboundary disputes over cloud seeding are not widespread, there is evidence of such. In China, a dispute was reported, when in the afternoon of 9th July 2004, vapor rich clouds passed Henan province from south to northeast. A disparity in rainfall in the region raised concerns. While five cities (Pingdingshan, Zhumadian, Luohe, Xuchang and Zhoukou) had attempted to seed rain, Xuchang and Pingdingshan received rainfall above 100 millimeter while downwind Zhoukou received just 27 millimeter after reportedly huge investment of manpower and resources. A meteorological professional working for Zhoukou city complained that: “They (‘upstream of the cloud route’) received torrential rains already! Yet they just keep bombing (referring to cloudseeding)! Are there any rules to guarantee our rights ?!”

Given the extent of cloud seeding, such complaints, whether legitimate or not, could be the tip of the iceberg.

Legitimacy is another issue. Given the difficulties in proving that specific cloud seeding activities have been the cause of increased precipitation in a specific area, conflict is likely to arise without just cause and most likely to the detriment of upstream neighbours. Enter the private sector to profiteer from rain making and tempers could really fray.

Absence of a global mandate

Weather modification is covered by the UN Convention on Environmental Modification which most countries that practice cloud seeding are party to. China acceded to it in 2005. The Convention requires that: parties undertake not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to another State party.

Protection afforded by this treaty is a little ambiguous as provided there is no hostile intent, its seems that cloud seeding can in fact be employed without redress, to the detriment of neighbours.

The Royal Society in its comprehensive report on geo engineering raises its concern that there is currently no sufficient mandate to control geo engineering globally, that

“..the potential exists for geoengineering methods to be deployed by corporations, by wealthy individuals or individual nation states. There are at present no international treaties or institutions with a sufficiently broad mandate to address this risk and to regulate such activities. The existing legal framework is fragmented and includes a mix of existing national, regional and international controls.”  The Royal Society , 2009

Still up in the clouds

Bearing in mind that China’s cloud seeding programme is thought to be one of the largest in the world, geopolitical concerns warrant thought at the very least. In fact, the transboundary nature of cloud seeding, is an issue that the Chinese government has recognized, as least with regard to its own provinces, as noted in its regulations on weather modification1.

Nevertheless, with terms such as vandalism of the skies and rain theft being attributed to cloud seeding, along with questions raised as to who owns the clouds and both the ‘reliability’ and ‘predictability’ of rain enhancement, it seems that there is some way to go for cloud seeding to be an accepted and proven method of tackling water scarcity. Should this point be reached, however, geopolitics will most likely become a stormy issue in making rain.

1 ‘Where weather modification operations are to be implemented crossing the boundaries of different provinces, autonomous regions or municipalities directly under the Central Government, the relevant people’s governments of the provinces, autonomous regions or municipalities directly under the Central Government shall make a decision thereon through consultation; if no agreement is reached through consultation, the decision shall be made by the competent meteorological department of the State Council in consultation with the relevant people’s governments of the provinces, autonomous regions or municipalities directly under the Central Government’.  Source CMA,  regulations on Weather Modification, 2002

Further reading:

  • Water Treaties – A Question of Rights: Sophie le Clue gives an overview of the water treaty landscape; the abundance of bilateral and multilateral treaties, but notably China’s lack of presence in the field.
  • Food, Weather & Water Heading North: Global weather patterns have shifted with major implications for agriculture. Find out what it means if for the sector if food, water and weather are all heading North in China.
  • China Hydro: Tough Weather Ahead: Could a shift in weather patterns mean that droughts in the normally water-rich South are here to stay?  Could this derail China’s aggressive hydro expansion in Yunnan & Sichuan? Debra Tan expands
  • Withering Heights: Water At Over 5,000m: Award-winning explorer Jeff Fuchs gives us a glimpse into why nomads in the Himalayas think the sky is confused & the mountains are dying given less precipitation and snowfall in recent years
Sophie le Clue
Author: Sophie le Clue
Sophie is a Director of ADMCF and is responsible for the Foundation’s environmental investments, including the identification/evaluation of projects and aligning financial investment with strategic philanthropic objectives. Sophie has worked for the past 20 years in the field of environmental protection and conservation, principally in the Asia Pacific region. She started her career in the UK working in London for an international engineering consulting firm as an environmental consultant, before moving to Hong Kong in 1992. Since then, Sophie has directed and managed consultant teams working on a range of projects for both public and private sector organizations, including environmental impact assessments, environmental management, policy and strategy development, as well as undertaking research projects in the Asia Pacific region.
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