The UAE has hardly been a sunbathers’ paradise this spring. In fact, European expats have compared the weather to that of their native countries — rain, rain and more rain.
Two months of unusually wet weather in the desert country may not have been welcomed by everyone but it is being hailed as a significant achievement intended to safeguard access to water — not only for drinking but also for industry and the increasingly important agricultural sector.
Annual rainfall in the UAE rarely exceeds 120 millimetres (mm), compared to 920mm in the UK. However, on March 9, 287mm of rain was recorded in an area covering Dubai and Al Ain, the highest since records began in 1977. The previous record for a 24-hour period was 178.9mm, recorded at Fujairah International Airport on December 11, 1995.
The records have inspired meteorologists, who consider it a great success. The National Centre for Meteorology and Seismology (NCMS) has been ramping up its cloud seeding activity — the revolutionary method of enhancing precipitation to reduce water scarcity in arid countries.
Cloud seeding involves flying aircraft and releasing flares with potassium chloride, sodium chloride and magnesium.
Cloud seeding involves flying light aircraft into the base of five or six clouds and releasing flares containing potassium chloride, sodium chloride and magnesium. The mixture encourages water vapour in the clouds to form droplets heavy enough to fall as rain.
In warm countries, such as the UAE, existing water drops are often too small to form raindrops, instead evaporating before they reach the ground. With cloud seeding, proper rain usually falls 20 minutes after firing the flares.
The UAE’s NCMS last year had six pilots and six Beechcraft King Air c90 aircraft for its cloud seeding drills, which commence as soon as meteorologists forecast cloudy weather.
Officials attributed the increase in operations this year to there being more viable cloud cover in the UAE. They claim that, contrary to assumptions, cloud seeding does not produce artificial rain, it simply enhances the amount of rain that would have fallen anyway.
The United Nations (UN) predicts that 14 percent of the world’s population will encounter water scarcity by 2025, particularly in arid and semi-arid countries.
With a fast-growing population expected to hit 10.4 million by 2020, compared to 9 million today, the UAE is under pressure to find more cost-effective ways of sourcing fresh water than its traditional yet expensive method of desalination.
A typical large-scale desalination plant producing about 100,000 cubic metres of water per day (enough to serve about 300,000 people) costs $100m, equating to $1m for every 1,000 cubic metres, according to the International Desalination Association (IDA).
Desalination is also an energy drain, with plants consuming as much as 200 million kilowatt hours (kWh) each day, compared to 1kWh per cubic metre for traditional drinking water treatment plants. Desalination also brings negative environmental impacts, including threatening marine life by altering salt concentrations in natural habitats.
Although comparative figures for cloud seeding are hard to source, NCMS meteorologist Sufian Farrah told Arabian Business last year that desalinating 1 cubic metre of water from the sea costs about $60, whereas the same amount of water extracted through cloud seeding costs just $1. Cloud seeding has little or no impact on the environment as it uses natural minerals rather than man-made chemicals, its proponents claim.
As the UAE works to increase its supply of fresh water, residents may have to get used to sodden shoes and flooded streets as rain becomes a more common characteristic of the national climate.
“At present, we have only two sources of water in the country: desalination to get fresh water, and rainwater,” says Omar Ahmed Al Yazeedi, director of research and development and training department at the NCMS. “There are no rivers or other sources of drinking water.”
“At the same time, there is an increased need for fresh water [in the UAE] because of continuous population growth and lifestyle changes placing more stretch on water demand.
“We need to get the maximum benefit from any water source we have, so we are looking at different methodologies for enhancing precipitation."
Arabian Business can reveal that the UAE conducted 101 cloud seeding operations in the first quarter of 2017, compared to 77 in the same period last year. Thirty-one flights were made during the last week of rain from March 20-28, says the NCMS, while the average number of cloud seeding flights made in the UAE each year is between 160 and 200.
It is difficult to assess the impact of cloud seeding on levels of rain because there is no way of measuring how much would have fallen without it. However, the NCMS says its studies show that rain enhancement increases the extraction of water from the cloud by 10-20 percent depending on the nature of the cloud and concentration of atmospheric vapours.
Assessments by the World Meteorological Association (WMO) and the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) claim that properly conducted rain enhancement operations can increase rainfall by 5-20 percent over internal areas and 5-30 percent over coastal areas — between 10-15 percent overall.
The UAE spent $558,000 on cloud seeding operations in 2015, Farrah told Arabian Business last year, but, with the uptick in operations since, this year’s budget is likely to be higher. The NCMS declines to reveal its budget for 2017, but provides information on the value of water produced from cloud seeding.
"NCAR estimates that a medium-sized cumulus cloud can contain approximately 275 million gallons of water. Assuming a 5 percent increase in rainfall, the resulting produced water is around 13.75 million gallons,” an NCMS spokesperson says.
“This equates to approximately 55,000 cubic metres. Assuming a price of AED2.24 [$0.60] per cubic metre, the total worth can be calculated to AED123,200 [$33,543].
“In the event that a 20 percent increase in rainfall is achieved, the resulting water produced is 55 million gallons, worth approximately AED492,800 [$134,175].”
Says Al Yazeedi: “Cloud seeding is much more cost-effective than desalination, so it’s of huge benefit.
“There is sufficient cloud cover in the UAE that maximising rainfall from clouds has a significant effect in terms of recharging underground water sources for future use.”
The UAE is keen to further global research and development (R&D) in this field and establish itself as an authority on cloud seeding. In 2015, it launched the UAE Rain Enhancement Research Programme to encourage research on rain enhancement, including the development of new technologies and instrumentation for cloud seeding.
The programme, funded by the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Presidential Affairs, awards $5m each to successful applicants over a three-year period. The applicants are research consortia from across the world — the first tranche was awarded to a team from Japan, Germany and the UAE, and the second went to a team from the UK, US and Finland.
“Globally, there is a big knowledge gap when it comes to rain enhancement as a solution for tackling water scarcity,” says Alya Al Mazroui, programme director of the UAE Research Programme for Rain Enhancement.
“The UAE started its cloud seeding programme back in the 1990s, with support from agencies, such as NASA in the US.
“But we want greater collaboration between different research institutions around the world, and our initiative intends to kickstart research in rain enhancement methodologies.”
One of the panellists evaluating proposals is NCAR project scientist Roelof Bruintjes, who is leading a research programme in the US on how terrain can be modified to increase cloud cover.
As part of his programme, he is testing the concept of building a man-made mountain to enhance a country’s rainfall. Mountains force air to rise, creating clouds ideal for producing rain and influencing weather conditions. Bruintjes told Arabian Business last year that he was advising the UAE on how it may implement such a scheme, should his research prove the concept viable.
“Building a mountain is not a simple thing,” he said. “If [the project] is too expensive for [the UAE government], logically it won’t go through, but this gives them an idea of what kind of alternatives there are for the long-term future.”
The UAE has sought to play down its interest in Bruintjes’ research. “It’s not a mountain [that we are building],” Al Yazeedi says. “What we are doing is research on how to increase the number of clouds, because we are doing cloud seeding and we need clouds to increase precipitation.
“There are studies that show that if you change land cover by adding some agriculture, for example, it helps with the formation of clouds.
“People have confused this land cover modification idea with the concept of terrain modification, which involves things like mountains. This is not what we are working on.”
Releasing flares into the sky encourages water vapour in the clouds.
He adds that as well as investigating ways to make more clouds, the NCMS is working to improve the technique of cloud seeding to produce more water.
Continuous research is key given that cloud seeding is relatively new, says Deon Terblanche, Geneva-based director of atmospheric research at the World Meteorological Organisation (WHO). “Cloud seeding is not an off-the-shelf technology but if successful there are tremendous cost and other benefits,” he tells Arabian Business.
“Unlike other methods of increasing water supply, cloud seeding adds to the natural water cycle and has far fewer ecological impacts than building a dam.
“The technique requires initial investment in as surface capture infrastructure and weather prediction models.
“Still, there is increasing demand for it in arid and semi-arid parts of the world. The UAE, by helping to coordinate and boost research in this field, has really put the issue on the map.”
Aside from soggy shoes and the comical need for an umbrella in a desert, there are other drawbacks to cloud seeding. Members of the public have lamented the artificial nature of manmade efforts to manipulate the weather — no surprise given their sometimes sinister history. In 1952, a freak storm caused floods that destroyed the UK village of Lynemouth, resulting in the deaths of 35 people.
Reports emerged years later that the storm was partly the result of a government-backed cloud seeding project. More than a decade later, the US army allegedly used cloud seeding techniques to increase monsoon rain over the Viet Cong-controlled Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam war.
In 2007, Russian military pilots described how they created rain clouds to protect Moscow from radioactive fallout after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. The results may have been catastrophic, with heavy, black-coloured rain falling over swathes of neighbouring Belarus, exposing the local population to high doses of radiation. The Belarusian government has insisted there is no danger despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) recording a higher than average occurrence of cancers in local children since the disaster.
Al Yazeedi says there is nothing unnatural or harmful about the cloud seeding approach being used in the UAE. “There is a misunderstanding among people — they think cloud seeding is making rain artificially.
“On the contrary, you have to have a cumulus cloud with water content in it and we try to help that cloud initiate the process of rain. There is no such thing as artificial rain.”
Terblanche says the public has no need to be concerned about “unnatural” weather modification. “Our fingerprint on the natural landscape is so big that this is a minor issue. Look at cities, where the whole landscape has been changed artificially. People need to have a balanced view of the world around them.”
Nevertheless, there are practical concerns. During the period of near-continuous rain in March, Dubai Police reported 1,447 traffic accidents over three days as a result of the unstable weather conditions. First, many UAE drivers are unused to driving in rain and become nervous; second, the roads lack the drainage systems of wetter countries and flood more easily, causing congestion or even road closures.
Al Yazeedi says he is reluctant to comment at length on how well equipped the UAE’s infrastructure is to cope with increasing rainfall — it not being his area of expertise.
“The country is always evolving and developing its roads and facilities, and we have a very good infrastructure here.”
“When [the authorities] design and build a new road, I’m 100 percent sure they have calculations on the impact of rain and share this data with all entities involved.”
However, he notes that the intensity of rain in the UAE, especially when boosted by cloud seeding, is higher than in other parts of the world. “In other countries you’ll find it’s raining for three days, but the intensity is low. Here, we receive three days of rain in one hour.”
As a solution for meeting a rising population’s water needs, and supporting emerging industries, such as farming in the UAE, cloud seeding is extremely valuable. But the country must work to address any unintended consequences of enhanced rainfall in a desert climate.