Saudi Arabia throws its support behind cloud-seeding technology

Obtaining freshwater through desalination is expensive. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 19 February 2020

Saudi Arabia throws its support behind cloud-seeding technology

  • Cabinet has approved cloud-seeding program that aims to increase rainfall in the Kingdom by almost 20 percent
  • The technology can increase the amount of rain by up to 70 percent, depending on the quality of the clouds

DUBAI: Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, including Saudi Arabia, have long been providing generous supplies of water for drinking and sanitation to their populations.

But with average annual rainfall rates of less than 100 mm, the Gulf states’ ecosystems and water resources are under even greater stress than the arid Middle East and North Africa region as a whole.
It came as no surprise, therefore, when the Saudi Cabinet recently approved a cloud-seeding program that aims to increase rainfall in the Kingdom by almost 20 percent.
The Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture said the program was developed after a review of global practices and visits to other countries in the region to study their experiences of cloud seeding.
Since a three-day downpour caused flooding in parts of the UAE in November last year, there has been a lot of speculation in the region as to whether cloud seeding was responsible for the unusually heavy rain.
The National Center of Meteorology and Seismology (NCMS), which runs the UAE’s cloud-seeding program, said seeding plans were active around that time but did not create the extreme weather front that caused the thunderstorms.
While there is no precise way to evaluate the results of cloud-seeding efforts, one thing is for certain: GCC countries do not have the luxury of ignoring the option.
The technology can increase the amount of rain by up to 70 percent, depending on the quality of the clouds, according to studies.
“Large potential benefits can warrant relatively small investments to conduct operational cloud seeding,” the American Meteorological Society said in 2010.

Desalination plants often dump highly concentrated saltwater back in the ocean. (Shutterstock)

Dr. Mohamed Shamrukh, a civil engineer who was a team member of Saudi Arabia’s cloud-seeding project in 2007-2008, said the latest program will help replenish groundwater supplies while potentially boosting rainfall by 10-20 percent, if not more.
“Saudi Arabia’s groundwater resources have suffered from over-abstraction due to high demand for different uses, which makes cloud seeding one of the first possible options to enhance groundwater recharge for sustainable use,” he told Arab News.
“Cloud-seeding, in an arid region like the Gulf, is a very complex physical process. It isn’t a low-cost method, but it’s competitive compared with desalination, for instance.”
As in the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s cloud-seeding program will target specific types of clouds, using their physical properties to stimulate rainfall.
Typically, catalysts — some of which are natural — are sown in selected clouds to release the largest possible amount of water.
The technology will not seek to create clouds; instead, it will aim to increase rainfall by providing cloud-condensation nuclei.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to explore cloud seeding is a no-brainer: With an average rainfall of about 59 mm a year, it is one of the world’s driest countries.
Despite campaigns aimed at safeguarding freshwater supplies — by urging people to use water wisely, recycling wastewater and encouraging savings and efficiency — consumption is expected to rise for a number of reasons.
Growing pressure is being placed on the Kingdom’s water resources by population growth and by the expansion of its industrial, energy, transportation, mining and agricultural sectors. The Saudi Vision 2030 reform plan aims to transform the Kingdom into a leading industrial power and an international logistics platform in a number of promising areas.
About 85 percent of Saudi Arabia’s total water demand is met by groundwater sources, but the rate of extraction is greater than the rate of replacement given the low rainfall.
The rest of the Kingdom’s water demand is met mostly through desalination of almost 2.7 billion cubic meters of seawater each year.


20% - Targeted increase in Saudi Arabia’s rainfall through cloud seeding.

2.7bn - Volume of seawater in cubic meters treated by Saudi desalination plants each year.

80-85% - Kingdom’s water demand currently met by groundwater sources.

59mm - Average annual rainfall received by Saudi Arabia.

But obtaining freshwater from the sea comes at a high financial and environmental cost in a part of the world dominated by vast, scorching deserts.
Desalination plants produce highly concentrated saltwater, or brine, that is often dumped back into the ocean.
“Brine production in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar accounts for 55 percent of the total global share,” according to the UN University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
Desalination also relies on energy-intensive processes that produce carbon emissions at a time of growing concern about global warming. Last year was expected to be one of the hottest three years on record.
The Middle East is projected to need more and more energy, which means the situation is going to get worse.
Experts say if the region can produce power using solar panels, which are becoming reasonably priced, that would take care of a lot of the problem.
Cloud-seeding will potentially complement the process. A few days of heavy rain induced by cloud-seeding can, with luck, bring downpours equivalent to several years’ output of a single water-desalination plant. In other words, rain induced by cloud seeding is much cheaper than desalinated water.
According to Saudi authorities, it was way back in 1976 that the country began studying cloud seeding in partnership with the World Meteorological Organization.
An agreement was signed with the University of Wyoming to conduct the first cloud-seeding experiments, which took place in Asir in 1990.
The experiments have continued in Saudi Arabia’s central regions, specifically Riyadh, Qassim and Hail, as well as the northwest and southwest, with the participation of a group of specialist Saudi scientists.
The results reportedly proved that the clouds have seeding potential.
According to reports, ski resorts in the US state of Colorado use cloud seeding to induce heavier snowfall. Rain-dispersal technology was also said to have been used by China to ensure dry weather during the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Closer to home, the UAE has been trying since 1990 to capture every drop of moisture stored in the clouds high above. Like Saudi Arabia, it ranks among the world’s top 10 arid countries.
The UAE, whose average annual rainfall is about 78 mm, is the second-largest producer of desalinated water after Saudi Arabia, accounting for 14 percent of global production.
As part of its cloud-seeding program, the UAE’s NCMS has forecasters based in Abu Dhabi monitor weather radars to tell pilots based in Al-Ain when to take off. The pilots operate Beechcraft King Air C90 planes equipped with salt flares that are fired into convective cloud formations to increase condensation and produce rain.
Shamrukh said more field experimental work is necessary before a clear conclusion can be drawn with respect to two questions: Whether cloud-seeding results in increased rainfall and, if so, by how much.
“The assessment of cloud seeding and its feasibility in the Gulf region must be done using a package of integrated scientific methods and simultaneous rainfall measurements on the ground surface,” he added.
“This experiment must be conducted for at least five years if the two questions can be answered in a scientifically accurate way.”

Kids going stir-crazy in isolation? Here’s how to keep them occupied

Updated 26 min 39 sec ago

Kids going stir-crazy in isolation? Here’s how to keep them occupied

  • Saudi mothers relate challenges in keeping their children from getting bored amid nationwide lockdown

RIYADH: School’s out for the foreseeable future, but every child’s dream is every mother’s worst nightmare. With nowhere else to go during the day, and most entertainment venues in the city cordoned off, mothers are discussing how the crisis has affected them, and more importantly, what they’re doing to control it.

Dr. Marwa Elagra, an assistant professor at REU, told Arab News about how she and her three children (4th grade, 1st grade, and nursery) were coping with the new social distancing policy and the challenges it posed for their education.

“In the beginning, during the first few days, their schools weren’t yet prepared for the sudden shutdown. It took them almost a week to prepare themselves,” she said.

Despite a somewhat bumpy beginning, things are starting to pick up. 

“They have virtual classes now, and interactive livestreaming with a certain schedule. They can follow up with their teachers, just like in a real classroom. They also send videos that students can watch at any time,” she said.

However, she struggles with getting the children out of “vacation mode,” and convincing them that they still need to study.

“That’s the main challenge in all of this. It’s quite difficult to control the kids around the house, especially since you can’t take them out. They’re jumping around all over the place. They’re doing their homework, but their brains just aren’t in the zone for it,” she said.

They (children) have virtual classes now, and interactive livestreaming with a certain schedule. They can follow up with their teachers, just like in a real classroom. They also send videos that students can watch at any time.

Dr. Marwa Elagra, assistant professor

She hopes that things return to normal soon, or at the very least that a clear plan for the future will emerge after the proposed isolation period is up.

“I hope it doesn’t last for long, especially for primary classes. It is difficult to continue online; they need to interact with their teachers. It is a great pressure on us as moms, we can’t fulfill the role of teachers who are more experienced with children. I am in the academic field myself but I don’t have experience with kids,” she said.

She also has concerns about what these decisions could mean for her children’s academic future and hopes everything will be resolved soon.

“Are they going to give the kids exams or they will end school without them and just count the first term results? Are they going to stop and continue earlier at the beginning of the next academic year? This unclear vision of what will happen is creating the panic between most moms,” she said.

She also has advice for mothers going through the same thing. 

“Have more patience, support and encourage your kids to do more reading, and not only academic reading. Look at the positive side and make use of this long vacation in increasing the knowledge and skills of your kids,” she said.

Dr. May Al-Khudhairy, dean of the College of Applied Medical Sciences at Riyadh Elm University, is making the most of the time she is spending at home with her four children.

“I love having them home because during the week they get home so late that I don’t spend enough quality time with them. I’m even reconsidering all their after-school activities. I’ve forgotten how this time is precious and we need to savor it as long as possible,” she said.

With colleges across the country closed until further notice, Al-Khudhairy is also working from home, a situation that makes it easier to supervise her children and make sure their schoolwork gets done. 

“We sit outdoors and work parallel. The older kids will do their school assignments, and the youngest does her simple Pre-K activities that I find online, from sites like Storynory and Pinterest,” she said.

She recommends that mothers try to keep children occupied with tasks that can be both informative and entertaining. 

“We bake brownies and cupcakes and do experiments, like creating slime at home. Anything to keep busy. They paint, and every day they change it around. And of course, we wash our hands a zillion times a day,” she said.