Drought-hit Kenya turns to cloud seeding for rain

by Gitonga Njeru | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 26 August 2011 01:19 GMT

The government is spending $11 million to try to improve rainfall over the next three months in the parched country

NAIROBI (AlertNet) - Kenyan scientists plan to use a technique known as cloud seeding to produce more rain from November, in an attempt to ease East Africa’s worst drought in several decades.

Most parts of the country usually experience a period of long rains from September until early December. But Kenya’s Meteorological Department forecasts that the coming season’s rainfall will be patchy and below normal, and the drought could last until March.

Kenya has experienced frequent droughts since 2005, but weather analysts say this year’s dry spell is the worst of them, and some have linked the trend to climate change.

With around 3.2 million Kenyans already in need of food and other humanitarian aid, the government has decided to try to increase precipitation through weather modification methods.

“We have a serious drought which has affected our food production. Food prices have gone up due to scarcity caused by the prevailing drought. There is great need for rain since most of the country depends on rain-fed agriculture,” said Peter Ambenje, the meteorological department’s deputy director.

“We have many unexploited clouds in the sky that need to be utilised. I believe cloud seeding is very vital at this desperate time,” he added. 

The meteorological department, a government agency, has a division that specialises in cloud harvesting and seeding, and a number of Kenyan scientists have experience in these techniques.

The environment ministry has already disbursed $11 million for the three-month project, according to Ambenje.

CHEMICAL RAIN MAKING

In cloud seeding, chemical substances - mainly dry ice or silver iodide - are dispersed into the air by planes, ground generators or rockets, where they act as a focus for condensation that encourages the formation of precipitation.

Nairobi is organising an international conference to explore solutions to food insecurity, where cloud seeding will be on the agenda.

And the government has launched several initiatives to boost Kenya’s forest cover to 10 percent, from just 1.8 percent now. Forests produce organic compounds called terpenes during warmer weather, which act as a natural catalyst for cloud seeding.

Scientists from the Aquiess Global Rain Project - an Australian firm that uses electromagnetic waves to influence the path of clouds - have offered to help Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia produce more rain.

Ambeje said Kenya has not yet agreed to work with the company as it employs a different technology to the cloud seeding project.

Aquiess operations director David Miles said in Nairobi recently that cloud path modification has successfully brought rain to drought-hit parts of the United States, Australia and Qatar.

“You have to know that 70 percent of the world’s rain falls into the oceans and we have to divert some of these rains to drought-affected regions of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

ECONOMIC THREAT

Economic analysts warn that the drought is putting sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest non-oil-producing economy in jeopardy. Predicted economic growth of more than 4.5 percent is under threat as the drought has pushed up food prices and the unemployment rate.

Inflation is estimated to be at its highest level in seven months, jumping from 5 percent in the first quarter to over 15.5 percent more recently.

“With a Kenyan middle class of more than 45 percent (of the population), the drought has affected their purchasing power,” said Wanyama Simiyu, a Nairobi-based economist. “They now only spend their money on necessary commodities such as food, rent and electricity. Purchases of non-essential goods and services such as electronics, smart phones, cars, and entertainment have been on a decline.”  

Many Kenyans blame the government. In February, politicians were warned by scientists and weather experts that a serious drought would hit the country and action should be taken to curb its impact, but they are widely perceived to have ignored the advice.

Last year, under normal rainfall conditions, the country’s farmers produced enough food to feed the population, and there were reports of wastage, Simiyu said.

“Food stocks were squandered and now everyone is complaining,” he added.

Kenya has spent several million dollars treating climate-related illness such as malnutrition, dehydration and diarrheal diseases, and has increased funds for public hospitals around the country.

The hope is that the cloud seeding initiative will help people return to their normal lives, improving food security and livelihoods.

SWAPPING CROPS FOR BRICKS

In western Kenya, for example, many farmers have turned to brick making, abandoning agriculture amid the poor rains.

As construction has boomed in the region, demand for bricks has surged. Economists estimate that brick making could surpass agriculture as western Kenya’s main business activity in a few years.

Edwin Lukoye, a 35-year-old a father of four, says his land used to be very productive but now he can earn more money from bricks.

“I make about $75 on a good day, enough to feed myself and my young family. I do plant a few crops such as maize but for domestic purposes,” he said.

With farming, profits are harder to come by - particularly in drought conditions - because many farmers use middlemen to sell their produce, he said.

“They in turn sell our agricultural products to agencies for 100 percent profit. In brick making, it is different,” said Lukoye.

Gitonga Njeru is a science journalist based in Nairobi.

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