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Another frontier of geopolitical tensions & possible environmental conflict

Simon Mohsin
12 May 2024 17:35:00 | Update: 12 May 2024 17:35:00
Another frontier of geopolitical tensions & possible environmental conflict
— File Photo

Conflicts across the world and history are prevalent and increasing. Reasons for the conflicts are multifold, and among them, environmental conflict is one form of such conflict that is broadly defined as social conflicts related to the environment.

These are mainly conflicts centered on natural resources, and they have been part of world history, catalysing many historical changes.

Experts have assessed and studied environmental conflicts from various perspectives and viewpoints, underscoring the causes, the actors and their motivations. The discipline has further focused on the forms of mobilisation, outcomes, and impacts of these conflicts too.

Almost all studies are in consensus that the occurrence and intensity of these conflicts increase as resources become scarcer. They also occur or exacerbate when resources are overused, depleted, or degraded.

The conflicts’ reasons for manifestations and implications include but are not limited to biodiversity, environmental air quality, forestry, water, land and natural resource management conflicts.

The trigger for these manifestations also includes and are not limited to people and the environment, environmental conflicts, climate change and environmental conflicts, and management implications.

The scope of people and the environment factor comprises stabilising and regulatory processes that among multiple issues includes moderation of weather extremes, which includes the practice of cloud seeding, which has recently garnered much interest among many.

Without going into too many technical intricacies, cloud seeding is basically dispersing substances like silver iodide, potassium iodide, and dry ice, with hygroscopic materials like table salt into the air for cloud condensation or ice nuclei.

It is a weather modification technique for improving cloud’s ability to produce rain or snow through introducing tiny ice nuclei into certain types of clouds. Cloud seeding can be done from ground-based generators or aircraft.

The recent extraordinary storm that was witnessed in UAE has been the key reason for cloud seeding coming to such intense focus worldwide. UAE has been conducting cloud seeding for several years.

On April 16, when the areas of UAE were inundated, and thunderstorms were seen resulting from rain reaching up to 256mm compared to the 100mm annual average, it is natural for everyone to suspect if UAE’s trying to play god through weather modification got out of hand or not.

Experts commented that this region of the globe has long rainless periods witnessing irregular, heavy rainfall; but April 16 was a rare event. Reports and commentaries also said that cloud seeding is not to blame, rather the rainfall was one of many negative effects of climate change.

There are reportedly 2,400 giga-tonnes of carbon (our total emissions since pre-industrial times) in our atmosphere, and surroundings that could have verily caused 18 months’ worth rainfall in day; but it was cloud seeding that people more readily began blaming for the extraordinary even, which according on expert of Oxford University is pretty lame and naïve.

This is all quite interesting and likely accurate. Experts certainly would know more about these things than us. However, there are certain issues, not conjecture, rather discussed in various reports that should make us more aware of the cloud seeding, and its probable impacts.

Let us consider reports published in Earth.Org. One report says that there are no straightforward answers to questions like might cloud seeding cause excessive rain, leading to flooding?

Debates about the cloud seeding industry have been ripe, but they have surfaced very recently because of the UAE incident.

Advocates of cloud seeding underscore its efficacy, indicating a 10 per cent – 15 per cent increase in rainfall. At the same time, further debates persist regarding silver iodide, the most common material used for its efficiency for ice nucleating properties.

However, there are ecological concerns that the substance might be toxic to terrestrial and aquatic life, prompting exploration of less harmful alternatives leading to the use of negatively charged ions like calcium chloride instead of ice-like crystals considered less harmful.

However, uncertainties persist with this procedure too.

There are other concerns intensified with related to and similar as to the aforementioned uncertainties. There a number of health risks involved are significant.

The minimum is the often-overlooked human exposure in the cloud seeding process. The environment becomes tainted causing the threat of idolism that would result in a combination of skin rashes and digestive issues.

Mishandling silver iodide and other such chemicals could cause chain reactions resulting in environmental pollution. The consequences can range from damage to natural ecosystems to tangible risks to human health.

According to scientists, the use of the chemical silver iodide can lead to acidification of the oceans, ozone layer depletion and an increase in the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Particles used for cloud seeding can also cause air pollution compromising air quality and human health. The most significant concern is whether cloud seeding can impact regional and large-scale precipitation or not.

Advocates of cloud seeding underline that the process can only change certain clouds, not having any effect on the complex patterns of big-scale weather and climate events, providing instant positive help with water and soil, especially in dry places.

But prospects of increased precipitation casts concerns on unintended outcomes risks of flooding and erosion, both of which are constant and annual phenomena of Bangladesh, a country downstream to India and China both of which use cloud seeding.

While cloud seeding is described as a mechanism to create or increase rain, it can also be described as moving rain from one location to another.

The American Meteorological Society acknowledges that there is currently no evidence of downwind impacts, but these cannot be ruled out. So, activities for the benefit of some may have an undesirable impact on others.

There are views within experts and thinkers in the US that cloud seeding could be used politically to deprive certain regions of rainfall, i.e. as a weapon of war, and such concerns are not just hypothetical.

In 2020, China announced a plan to divert water vapor from the Yangtze River basin to the Yellow River basin.

This plan would cover an area half the size of India. With such large scale initiatives, would it be really prudent to take it at face that cloud seeding has no regional, and/or geopolitical implications.

This raises large governance questions. Questions like how to ethically divide water, which is already a contentious issue. Now add to it the question of who controls the sky, and perhaps more such questions.

Without clear policies, especially international policies and law to address trans-boundary issues of this nature, it is likely that the powerful will benefit at the expense of the weak, as has been the case with climate change.

Since 2000, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors cloud seeding operations in the US, has recorded over 50 projects until August 2022.

China, India, Russia, Indonesia, Thailand, UAE, are among many others that have ongoing research and implementation programs. The list also includes some African countries.

Meticulous scientific investigation and research should be a non-negotiable prerequisite for cloud seeding across the globe, so that the practice does not only inadvertently upset our ecology and climate stability, but also not exacerbate situation for already climate vulnerable countries like Bangladesh, who should be leading efforts for such investigation and research multilaterally, in international forums, with focus on embedding, establishing, and enforcement mechanisms for international policy and legal framework for equitable, and safe use of the cloud seeding mechanism.

Simon Mohsin, the author of this article, is a political and international affairs analyst.