JEDDAH: To meet growing demand for fresh water in Saudi Arabia, authorities have launched a project that will alter cloud patterns to increase rainfall; a technique known as cloud seeding.
With long-term average rainfall of less than 100 millimeters per year, a growing population and a growing agricultural sector, there is an immense thirst for fresh water in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, in early April, the Kingdom launched the first phase of a cloud seeding program to alter the amount and type of precipitation.
Following the Saudi government’s approval of the plan, an aircraft was deployed in the skies above the vast rocky plateau of Najd in the central region of the Kingdom, where it dropped plumes of silver iodide into the clouds. This caused ice crystals to form in the clouds, boosting rainfall over the targeted areas. The process has started in the Riyadh region and will soon expand to other sites in Asir, Baha and Taif.
“The Kingdom is considered one of the countries with the least rainfall, with an average of 100mm per year,” Ayman Ghulam, director general of the National Meteorological Center, told a conference in Riyadh in March. “Cloud seeding is one of the most promising solutions in Saudi Arabia.”
The national artificial rain program is expected to continue for five years, with the aim of increasing rainfall by up to 20%. It is part of the Saudi Green Initiative, launched in March 2021 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to promote sustainable development and environmental preservation and to secure natural water sources in the Kingdom.
Roelof Bruintjes, who leads the weather modification group at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, said the Kingdom uses a well-established method of cloud seeding that is environmentally safe.
The two seeding agents used in the Saudi operation are hygroscopic materials (i.e. substances that tend to absorb moisture from the air) such as salts and silver iodide . They are used in such low concentrations that they are largely undetectable and have been used for nearly 40 years in cloud seeding projects in the drought-prone western United States.
The success of cloud seeding operations, Bruintjes said, depends to some extent on the characteristics of the clouds themselves.
“No cloud is the same as another cloud and no cloud will ever be the same as another cloud,” he told Arab News.
“In Saudi Arabia, most of your clouds that occur in the central and southwestern region are more convective cloud types. This way we mainly use hygroscopic cells to create larger droplets so they can more easily collide with each other and trap the rain, so you can get more water which is treated in the cloud to the surface.
“You’re basically trying to get more water from the clouds to increase the percentage of water that the clouds process that comes down to the surface.”
Water covers about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, but the Middle East and North Africa region has very few vital resources. According to the UN, it is the most water-scarce region in the world, with 17 countries considered to be below the water poverty line.
The situation is aggravated by rapid population growth, poor infrastructure and overuse of limited resources. Agriculture alone accounts for around 80% of water consumption in the Middle East and North Africa region, according to the World Bank.
This overuse means that the region’s natural groundwater reserves are not being replenished quickly enough to keep pace with demand. Shortages can have far-reaching humanitarian consequences, with droughts destroying livelihoods and displacing people from rural to urban areas.
About 1.1 billion people in the world do not have reliable access to water and 2.7 billion suffer from shortages for at least one month of the year. By 2025, it is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population could face water shortages.
Predictions suggest that water supplies will drop dramatically by 2030 and rationing could become the new normal unless sustainable solutions are implemented.
The UN has classified Saudi Arabia and most other Gulf countries as water-scarce countries. The exception is Oman, which is slightly above the severe water scarcity threshold of 500 cubic meters of water per capita per year.
Studies have shown that the Middle East could be one of the regions most affected by climate change. They warn that conditions are conducive to a process known as photochemical air pollution, which adds to the increase and high concentration of aerosol particles from both natural sources, such as dust from the desert, and man-made, such as pollution.
“The Middle East is the crossroads of the world,” Bruintjes said. “You get the pollution from India in the summer, due to the easterly winds, and in the winter you probably get some of the frontal systems from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.
“Aerosols know no borders, clouds know no borders, pollution knows no borders.”
It is because of these man-made and environmental factors that cloud seeding is considered a particularly effective solution for this particular region.
“The influence of biomass smoke from Africa, the penetration of dust from the Sahara into this region, those are the kinds of things that we will evaluate as part of any cloud seeding experiment,” Bruintjes said.
“Dust particles only interact with clouds to form ice crystals, not droplets. However, outgassing in the oil industry produces more sulfates than nitrates – smaller particles that can generally inhibit precipitation – and this is where cloud seeding can come in.
Saudi Arabia has no permanent natural lakes or rivers, or areas of abundant natural vegetation, except for its southwestern Asir highlands.
For the past three decades, the Kingdom has exploited its underground reserves, called aquifers, for agricultural purposes. As a result, they have fallen from 166 cubic meters of internal renewable freshwater resources per capita in 1987 to just 71 cubic meters in 2018.
The country has therefore been forced to rely on large-scale seawater imports and desalination to meet demand.
A 2018 UN study found that there are 16,000 desalination plants in operation in 177 countries producing a volume of fresh water equivalent to nearly half the average flow of Niagara Falls. Saudi Arabia is home to one of the largest desalination plants in the world.
However, research has shown that desalination plants are inevitably associated with environmental problems, including air pollution, making their long-term use unsustainable if the world hopes to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions. .
Saudi Arabia has decades of experience in water desalination, starting with the opening of the country’s first facility in the 1950s. As new technologies were developed to minimize emissions, the Kingdom adopted solar and other renewable energy to power its desalination plants.
Nevertheless, if the country is to meet the ever-increasing demand for water and replenish its aquifers, alternatives must be developed at an appropriate scale. Along with ground-based seeding generators, cloud seeding is seen as a possible way to supplement dwindling reserves.
Saudi Arabia is only the second country in the Gulf region, after the United Arab Emirates, to launch a cloud seeding program. However, many other drought-stricken countries around the world have embraced the technology to alter the weather and help supplement their natural water supplies.
The ability to predict the distribution and intensity of rainfall in the Gulf and wider MENA regions could prove critical in the coming years as climate change leads to more frequent droughts.