High and Dry: China Attacks The Heavens In Hopes of Rain

China's DroughtChina's DroughtChina is currently in the midst the most devastating drought it has seen in the last fifty years, and projections for the rest of the year show no signs of relief.  It has been hit particularly hard in northern China where failing winter crops and a lack of basic drinking water have caused a state of emergency. Rainfall in some areas is as much as 80 percent below normal levels, and the famous Yellow River has seen its water lever drop 20 to 40 percent to the dismay of farmers who depend on its waters. Beijing has pledged a $12.6 billion aid package to help struggling farmers, but one can't help but suspect that it isn't nearly enough.

The matter is of such critical importance that China cannot afford to wait for nature to take its course, and they are now taking matters into their own hands. China will attempt a most difficult task: they will try to force the sky rain. How do you make the sky rain? By attacking it with airplanes and rockets, that's how. It's called cloud seeding. This is an experimental process in which clouds are dusted with a silver compound (usually released from an aircraft or rocket) to stimulate the formation of droplets of rain.

In the past few weeks, China has been sending air force freighters to the skies, fully equipped with cloud-seeding gear to try to tackle this recent weather crisis.  And while other nations have found rockets to be an expensive solution, China - no stranger to firing rockets into the heavens - is jumping behind this particular variety of cloud seeding in full force as well.

But you can't help sensing that this has a certain redneck feel about it when you see such high tech gizmos being launched from the back of a shabby pickup truck (see below). Nevertheless, Anhui and Henan were among seven provinces where moderate rainfall was reported to have been successfully induced last weekend according to Xinhua, after clouds were bombarded by 2,392 rockets and 409 cannon shells filled with cloud seeding chemicals.

Despite all these efforts, the effectiveness of cloud seeding is still being debated.  French climatologist Laurent Li says that while cloud seeding "was proved to produce condensation, it wasn't scientifically proven to produce rain". Other studies in Australia claim that it really works, providing long-term data accumulated over a 45 year trial.

Regardless of whether China's efforts prove fruitful or not, the fact remains that the country is headed for some major challenges in the next few years, especially on the agricultural front.  Sexy technology like cloud seeding might make for comforting headlines in the middle of such a crisis, but until China strikes at the root of the problem they will not be any further ahead. China became the world's leading polluter in 2008, and until they take significant action on that front, they (and indeed the whole world) will continue to be plagued by the effects of global warming.

Rick Martin
Guest Blogger

Our guest blogger, Rick Martin, has spent years covering the tech scene in China, and now lives in Japan writing about all things Asia.