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The United Arab Emirates is to fund three research teams from around the world to work out how to make it rain over the Arabian Desert.

The teams, from Germany, Japan and the UAE, will share US$5 million from the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science. Each team will tackle a different aspect of an evolving technology called cloud seeding — in which a chemical is injected into the atmosphere from an aircraft to encourage water condensation and cloud formation in the hope that it will rain.

“[The programme] will secure the UAE’s water supplies in the long run, and support innovation to reach future solutions that enhance water security in the region and the world,” says programme director Alya Al Mazroui.

As part of the project, a team from Germany will try to find the best spots for seeding by looking at how weather convergence zones — places where two prevailing air flows meet — interact with land cover. The Japanese team will seek to develop new algorithms to identify the clouds most likely to be successfully seeded.

“[The programme] will secure the UAE’s water supplies in the long run.”

Alya Al Mazroui

The UAE team, led by Linda Zou, an environmental engineer at the UAE’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, will look at alternatives to the salts and frozen carbon dioxide used in traditional cloud seeding. Zou’s research will cover the use of nanotechnology, including nanographene, to accelerate water condensation and make rain droplet formation more efficient.

Al Mazroui says the UAE’s current rain enhancement efforts involve seeding clouds with natural salts, which attract water vapour to form rain drops.  

“This process requires 72 hours of preparations and weather forecasting to determine the feasibility of the process, and conducting it at the appropriate time,” she explains.

The Gulf is among the driest regions on the planet, and climate change has significantly cut rainfall over the past decade. At the same time, the resource-intensive lifestyles of many Gulf nation residents means water consumption per person is among the highest in the world (see map), leading to significant water shortfalls.

Click here to enlarge. 
Some researchers in the region are critical of the UAE’s approach to its water shortage problems. 
Credit: FAO Aquastat

It would be more useful to direct research towards ensuring the UAE makes full use of existing water supplies, says Mohammad El-Nesr, a water systems engineer at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. He adds that there are potential dangers associated with the chemicals used in cloud seeding, especially silver iodide. “Usage might involve enormous risks, according to research,” he warns.

The original version of this piece appeared on SciDev.Net’s Middle East & North Africa edition. 


Mansour Almazroui and others Recent climate change in the Arabian Peninsula: Seasonal rainfall and temperature climatology of Saudi Arabia for 1979–2009 (Atmospheric Research, July 2012)