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Cloud Seeding in the UAE: Making It Reign in the Desert

The week-old news of flooding in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken everyone around the world by shock. In just around 24 hours, the cities of Dubai, Al Ain, and Abu Dhabi were all clogged with water levels of up to half a foot (16 cm), double that of which the country receives in one single year. Such extreme climate conditions have been partially attributed by experts to climate change while they embark on investigating the human and natural factors that may have had a hand. However, public opinions differ, as the debate online points towards the true cause of the extreme downpour being the up-and-coming increased usage of ‘cloud seeding’ technology by the nation’s government. This method of inducing rainfall has been in development for decades now, with the number of missions being carried out increasing every year. However, what has been brought to light here goes beyond as the roots of the problem lie deeper beneath the surface. 


Water (in)security in the Middle East.

Water security has been a national-level security issue for almost all countries in the Middle East and North Africa for over five decades now, with 83% of the region’s population being exposed to extremely high levels of water stress. The water stress index refers to the ratio of clean and freshwater reserves available for usage in proportion to renewable freshwater sources within the nation. Thus, being under high water stress means that the annual water withdrawal and usage are much higher than what can be supplied at a sustainable rate. In seven out of the top ten most water-stressed nations, all of which are in the Middle East and North Africa, the annual rate of water withdrawal is about eight times higher than the supply available to them from their renewable resources.


Figure 1: wri.org/aqueduct 


This graph by the World Resources Institute illustrates the intensity of water stress experienced by nations across the world in 2023. The graph shows a high concentration of regions in the central equatorial belt facing extremely high water stress. Drastic weather and climate changes have led to a scarcity of freshwater in the Gulf area, with natural factors such as rainfall and high temperatures appearing to be at the core of the issue. Nonetheless, human activities such as overexploitation of natural resources (i.e. groundwater) and inefficient irrigation practices also significantly contribute to the issue.


Over the last decade alone, the population of the UAE has doubled, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing populations. As a result, the average demand for water in the nation is also at the top of the list globally - with the current consumption rate being 550 litres per capita, expected to double by 2030. Although this high demand level does stem solely from personal consumption, it is proving to be pernicious as time passes. Since the 1970s, desalination plants have been a reliable source of 42% of the nation’s freshwater production. However, this choice of technology is not foolproof as these plants are run on energy generated by burning fossil fuels, so the need for one resource is being satiated at the expense of bringing detriment to another - our environment. The latter of the two is a thousand times as arduous to recover.


Cloud seeding as the next step

As a result, the alternative being taken up is cloud seeding, a remarkable creation through which rainfall can be artificially induced by sprinkling salting agents at an updraft angle into clouds, which then experience an increase in their precipitation rate leading to rainfall. Despite chemtrail conspiracy theorists believing that the government uses it to carry out psychological manipulation or human population control, cloud seeding is just the newfound tool of the Emirates in mitigating their perpetual struggle with water security. This technology has been shown to increase the possibility of rain by 30% and has virtually no residual wastage. Thus, the only energy going into powering these missions is the aircraft fuel burnt. 


Source: Polypipe (2020)


Within the UAE, cloud seeding is used primarily for agricultural purposes and to deal with rising heat conditions. During peak summer, temperatures can reach as high as 50 degrees Celsius, making it extremely tough to survive the dry desert climate without sufficient hydration sources. Thus, each year, the country has been increasing the number of cloud-seeding missions it carries out; the current average is 300 missions. Just in February this year, within five days, 27 missions were carried out.


Implications to keep in mind

However, as with most technological advancements, cloud seeding has potential downsides. Even though psychological manipulation may not be one of these outcomes, terrestrial and aquatic life are likely to feel the ecological impact of the salting agents used. The threat of iodism, a condition caused by the most commonly used salt silver iodide, also extends to humans, with potential symptoms including skin rashes, headaches, and anaemia, among others. Those uninvolved in these projects may have to bear the cost of these unintended effects, thus introducing an ethical dimension to this practice. 


In addition, the scope of these missions often goes past the borders and environment of the country that carries them out. As a result, social outcomes such as geopolitical issues become a part of the conversation as well. Internationally binding treaties such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses have been introduced as regulatory frameworks that aim to ensure that nations do not overstep their bounds when employing cloud seeding. This gives the practice legal depth as well. 


Digging deeper into the underlying issue

However, as previously pointed out, these missions were not the cause of the flooding that took place on the 16th of April, as made clear by a statement from the UAE National Centre of Meteorology. It is due to their nature (both literally and otherwise) that desert cities are not well suited to handle extreme rainfall. The geology of the Emirates is not geared to have water percolate into its ground, thus leading to flash flooding in cases of extreme and continuous rainfall, as just seen. 


But, the extent of the issue stretches further. Being the fastest-growing population globally, the UAE has transformed its cities at an astonishing rate. Yet, with increased urbanisation, the risk of frequent and severe flooding has also gone up as water remains landlocked due to the lack of proper drainage systems –which ironically is due to the infrequent and scarce amount of rainfall in the region. Now, measures such as pumping trucks are relied on to drain clogged water out of the streets, while nationwide weather alerts are sent out whenever unexpected showers come. 


Given that building and installing stormwater drainage systems at this stage is very tough, as the infrastructure of these cities has already been constructed, the danger of flooding still looms over the country's people. The harm it brings is terrifying, as the recent flooding has shown how the lack of proper drainage systems can be life-threatening, with four people having lost their lives in a week. Locals are either trapped in their homes or forced to take shelter wherever possible; three of the deaths were caused due to the individuals suffocating in their cars. 


What comes next?

What is currently important is how the country plans to continue dealing with the threat of water insecurity, which is worsening by the day due to climate change. The UAE Water Security Strategy 2036, launched in 2017, outlines sustainable goals composed to reduce the nation’s overall water demand by 21% and increase freshwater storage capacity for emergencies. This aims to be a step closer to having a future where there is sustainable and continuous access to water. 


Additionally, in June of last year, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai signed onto a massive billion-dollar sewage system plan for the city. With the recent disaster, hope is that more such undertakings will soon be on their way. The danger of global warming has been made clear, and with it, a need to work on developing measures to prepare in case of such flash flooding. Thus, research on alternative forms of risk-mitigating measures is being taken up while urgent studies are being conducted on the recent incident. 


Knowing the resilient composure of the sheikhs, their capacity to deal with extreme natural conditions is time-tested and evident to us all today – leaving us to simply watch how they continue ameliorating their surroundings and learning from their mistakes. 

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