Technology

How the UAE is making it rain

 By Criselda Diala-McBride

UAE takes rain seriously, and for obvious reasons. With its arid climate and rising population, the country relies on desalination plants for 90% of its drinking water supplies. For over a decade, the government has turned to weather modification technologies such as cloud seeding to help replenish its scarce water reserves. Recently, the government has launched a $5-million grant to encourage rain enhancement research. With $800 million spent annually on energy-intensive desalination plants, cloud seeding could be one of several possible less expensive ways to produce potable water…

(Cloud seeding materials by www.iceflares.com)

In the UAE, as in other parts of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, water has become an invaluable resource, more so even than oil. Currently, seawater desalination accounts for 90 percent of the country’s potable water supply, but the process’ exorbitant cost is forcing the government to explore alternatives such as weather modification technologies or cloud seeding to provide for its population’s needs.

In a country where a liter of bottled drinking water costs more than a liter of unleaded gasoline ($0.52 vs $0.43, as of February 2016), the government has long held water security to be a critical component of the nation’s sustainable future. The UAE receives just 78 millimeters of rainfall per year, on average. This has proved insufficient to beef up its scarce groundwater reserves that have been under enormous strain due to a growing non-oil economy and an expanding population.

For decades the UAE has turned to desalination to address rising water consumption, but the method is highly energy-intensive. The process requires 10 times more power to produce drinkable water than it takes to treat surface fresh water, according to renewables energy company Masdar.

It has also been widely reported that the country spends around $800 million per year on building, operating and maintaining its desalination plants, and the cost is expected to balloon by 300 percent in 2018. Abu Dhabi, the capital and the largest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, is forecast to spend $2 billion on water desalination projects over the next five years to keep up with demand.

How cloud seeding is done

Although the UAE has been dabbling in cloud seeding since the 1990s, it wasn’t until recently that the country made international headlines by exploring the technology’s potential in addressing global water-shortage problems.

In 2015, the government launched the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science, with a $5-million endowment managed by the National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology (NCMS). The research program, which was created to encourage the development of technologies that can stimulate rainfall, attracted 78 proposals from 325 scientists in 25 countries. In January this year, it awarded the $5-million grant to research groups from Japan, UAE and Germany.

Cloud seeding is the process of shooting combustible sodium chloride into cumulus clouds, to increase rainfall. While the technique is used in many countries worldwide, there is still a growing debate in the scientific community as to the effectiveness of cloud seeding in increasing precipitation. C. Donald Aherns, author of Meteorology Today: An Introduction to Weather, Climate, and the Environment, says it is difficult to measure the results of cloud-seeding experiments.

However, Aherns writes that some experiments suggest seeding could enhance precipitation between 5 and 20 percent “under the right conditions.” NCMS believes a successful cloud-seeding operation can provide even better results, increasing rainfall by 30 percent and producing water that could be worth around $300,000.

Through its research program, the UAE has set itself the ambitious goal of becoming a leader in the science of rain enhancement, with the hope of one day exporting its cloud-seeding technologies to quench the thirsts of other nations.

about the author
Criselda Diala-McBride
Dubai-based journalist with 20 years of experience writing and editing finance, aviation, tourism, retail, technology, property and oil and gas articles for a range of print and online publications.