BEIJING - After weeks of watching the
mercury soar, hardening the already cracked earth
of their wilting orchards and farms, a group of
farmers on the outskirts of Beijing gather in the
Fragrant Hills that line the western fringe of
China's capital city. Unlike their ancestors, they
do not assemble to perform a rain dance or gather
in a temple to pray to the Lord Buddha to bring
Instead, they grab rocket
launchers and a 37-millimeter anti-aircraft gun
and begin shooting into the sky. What they launch
are not bullets or missiles but chemical pellets.
Their targets are not
aggressors but wisps of passing cloud that they
aim to "seed" with silver-iodide particles around
which moisture can then collect and become heavy
enough to fall.
The farmers are part of
the biggest rain-making force in the world:
China's Weather Modification Program.
According to Wang Guanghe, director of the
Weather Modification Department under the Chinese
Academy of Meteorological Sciences, each of
China's more than 30 provinces and province-level
municipalities today boast a weather-modification
base, employing more than 32,000 people, 7,100
anti-aircraft guns, 4,991 special rocket launchers
and 30-odd aircraft across the country.
"Ours is the largest artificial weather
program in the world in terms of equipment, size
and budget," Wang said, adding that the annual
nationwide budget for weather modification is
between US$60 million and $90 million.
is no coincidence that the world's biggest such
project is in China. The country's leadership has
never been cautious about harnessing nature,
taking on a slew of what were once thought
impossible engineering challenges, such as the
Three Gorges dam, the world's biggest
hydroelectric project, and the Qinghai-Tibet
Railway, the world's longest highland railroad.
For a largely agrarian country like China,
the weather was thought of as far too important to
be left to the whim of gods or nature. As a
result, Chinese scientists began researching
man-made rain as far back as 1958, using chemicals
such as silver iodide or dry ice to facilitate
condensation in moisture-laden clouds.
the beginning, the idea was to ease drought and
improve harvests for Chinese farmers, but over the
decades other functions have evolved such as
firefighting, prevention of hailstorms, and
replenishment of river heads and reservoirs.
Artificial rain has also been used by some
provinces to combat drought and sandstorms. In
2004, Shanghai decided to induce rain simply to
lower the temperature during a prolonged heat wave
to bring relief to an increasingly hot and sweaty
And now China's weather
officials have been charged with another important
task: ensuring clear skies for the Summer Olympic
Games next year.
Zhang Qiang, the top
weather-modification bureaucrat in Beijing, said
her office has been conducting experiments in
cloud-busting for the past two years in
preparation for the Games' opening ceremony on
August 8, 2008.
She said that according to
past meteorological data, there is a 50% chance of
drizzle on that day. To ensure blue skies, the
Beijing Weather Modification Office is busy
researching the effects of various chemical
activators on different sizes of cloud formations
at different altitudes. The aim is to catch
pregnant clouds early and induce rainfall ahead of
the big day so that during the opening ceremony
the sky is cloud-free.
Wang said similar
efforts in the past have already helped to create
good weather for a number of international events
held in China, including the 1999 World Horti-Expo
in Yunnan and the 1993 East Asian Games in
However, Zhang warned that her
cloud-fighters will only be effective in the event
of the threat of a drizzle: "A heavy downpour will
be impossible to combat."
Her caveat goes
to the heart of the primary criticism leveled
against weather-modification efforts worldwide:
doubts about their effectiveness. Wang himself
admits that it remains notoriously difficult to
establish how much real impact cloud-seeding has,
since there is no foolproof way to establish how
much rain might have fallen without intervention.
The United States, which pioneered
cloud-seeding techniques in the 1940s and 1950s,
has long cooled in its enthusiasm for the science
behind artificial rain. However, Israel and Russia
continue to have substantial weather-modification
programs and Wang said experiments conducted in
these countries reveal that cloud-seeding can
increase rainfall by between 6% and 20%.
Zhang said reservoirs in Beijing have
shown an increase of 10-13%, one directly
attributable to the efforts of her rainmakers.
Despite some international skepticism, the
Chinese authorities remain convinced of the merits
of attempting to alter weather. China's state news
agency Xinhua recently reported that between 1999
and 2006, 250 billion tonnes of rain was
artificially created, enough to fill the Yellow
River several times over. Moreover, China's 11th
Five Year Plan, which kicked off last year, calls
for the creation of about 50 billion cubic meters
of artificial rain annually.
declining to provide specifics, Zhang said her
office's budget has seen sharp spikes in recent
years and she expects it to continue to grow given
northern China's extreme water shortages, which
are exacerbated by the impact of climate change.
Indeed, the annual per capita water supply for
China is only 2,200 cubic meters, just 25% of the
global average, according to the World Bank.
Artificial rain, however, is not
controversy-free even within China. City dwellers
have raised concerns about environmental
pollution, though both Wang and Zhang insist that
silver iodide is used in such tiny quantities that
it brings no negative health consequences.
Cloud-seeding shells and rockets have also
sometimes gone astray, damaging homes and injuring
inhabitants. Only last year a passer-by in the
municipality of Chongqing was killed by part of a
rain cannon that flew off during firing in May.
Wang says training programs and licenses
have sharply curbed accidents in recent years, and
the 135 farmers who comprise the on-call
rainmaking force in Beijing go through intensive
training, lasting several weeks, before they are
let loose on the artillery. The farmers are paid
about US$100 a month for their cannon and
rocket-launching duties, which they perform about
40 times a year.
The person who gives the
shooters the green signal to launch their cloud
attacks is none other than Zhang, China's
modern-day equivalent of Zeus, Indra, or the
Chinese rain god Xuantian Shangdi. However, the
businesslike bureaucrat is modest when it comes to
describing her role: "We try our best, but there
are no guarantees of success."
rain gods have claimed differently?
Pallavi Aiyar is the China
correspondent for The Hindu.