While the western United States is facing a serious drought combined with heat waves at the moment, the situation in China makes America’s woes seem almost trivial by comparison. China is currently in the midst of the worst drought that’s been seen since they began keeping official records in the fifties. River levels have fallen drastically during this period, which is particularly bad for the rural, agricultural regions of the country such as Sichuan province for two reasons. First of all, they rely heavily on hydroelectric power, but the rivers are too low in many areas to spin the turbines. Factories that produce solar panels and computer chips have been shut down for more than a week to conserve electricity for homes. At the same time, China’s rice crop is approaching harvest time, but many of the crops are either in danger of failing or have already died. This could eliminate 75% of the country’s rice harvest, a blow that would have global implications.
But the Chinese aren’t ready to give up just yet. They need rain. And since there doesn’t appear to be much of that on the horizon, they’re going to attempt to make it. They won’t be bringing in any native rain dancers or holy men, however. They’re going to try to make it rain using chemicals, while using a different treatment to try to make the soil retain more water. (Associated Press)
China says it will try to protect its grain harvest from record-setting drought by using chemicals to generate rain, while factories in the southwest waited Sunday to see whether they would be shut down for another week due to shortages of water to generate hydropower.
The hottest, driest summer since Chinese records began 61 years ago has wilted crops and left reservoirs at half of their normal water level. Factories in Sichuan province were shut down last week to save power for homes as air-conditioning demand surged, with temperatures as high as 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
The coming 10 days is a “key period of damage resistance” for southern China’s rice crop, said Agriculture Minister Tang Renjian, according to the newspaper Global Times.
When I first scanned these headlines I thought this program sounded potentially risky, if not outright dangerous. Do you really want to fill the sky with chemicals that will then literally rain down into your drinking water and crops? But if you look into how the cloud seeding process works, it’s really not so bad. Most of the material they’re seeding the clouds with is actually just composed of ice crystals. Those crystals form a base for moisture in the cloud to accumulate, growing into rain drops or snowflakes that then fall to the earth.
As far as getting the soil to retain more water and keep the crops alive, the chemicals in use there also don’t sound too threatening. The most common way it’s done involves putting glucose into the soil. In other words, sugar. This is really just an amplification of what already happens naturally, as many plants have evolved to release glucose into the earth, likely because of the resultant water retention effect.
I can hear some of you asking the obvious question. ‘Wait a minute. If we can just make rain and improve the soil’s water retention, why aren’t we already doing it in America?‘
The short answer is “we are doing it.” The longer answer includes the phrase, “but not much of it.” California has been engaged in cloud seeding for decades, but it’s a controversial idea. Since we can’t control shifts in the wind and the temperature of the atmosphere at those levels, getting the rain to fall precisely where it’s needed is a hit-or-miss proposition. Also, the idea of playing “rain god” can create new problems to replace the old ones. If you artificially force rain to fall in one place, that means that the rain will not fall somewhere else where it would have precipitated naturally. This is always a game of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
As for the water retention enhancements of the soil, that’s being done all the time in field testing (literally) at Cornell’s School of Agriculture. The process definitely works. But it’s also massively expensive compared to traditional fertilizers. Doing it on a large enough scale to positively impact huge tracts of farmland would either put our farmers out of business or cause the price of staple foods to skyrocket far beyond the levels we see today, which are already higher than they should be.
China can afford to do this for a little while because the Chinese Communist Party can pretty much do whatever it wants and silence anyone who complains. Attempting this in the United States on a scale large enough to make a significant difference would require massive subsidies, likely driving inflation even further out of control. We can only fool with Mother Nature to a certain extent and it appears that there are always consequences when we do.