Faking snow in the desert in Mali to boost rain

Only one cloud in sight for these farmers in central Mali, Segou. Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN

The same technology that ski resorts in rich countries have used for decades to make snow has been brought to sub-Saharan Africa, but with a different aim: to keep crops and communities alive.

"Thirty minutes after our plane goes up, it rains," said Daouda Zan, an engineer at Mali's meteorology service. Bio-precipitation, or cloud-seeding, has been used around the world for more than half a century, when aircraft spray chemicals, most often silver iodide or dry ice, to create cloud condensation.

For the past three years meteorologists in Mali have tracked clouds over the driest regions and sprayed them; the fabricated snow then melts into rain.

Mamadou Adama Diallo, the rain project coordinator, told IRIN the government had been searching for decades for a solution to face increasingly unpredictable rainfall, which he links to climate change.

Only 4 percent of the country has irrigable land, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The shortage of rainfall is most critical in the central regions of Segou, Mopti and Koulikoro, said the national weather service; at least 13 percent of children aged five or younger in these areas showed signs of acute malnutrition, a 2006 government survey noted.


Average rainfall has declined by 20 percent in Mali since the droughts of the 1970s. "Dry spells increased, groundwater reserves shrank, and the levels of our biggest rivers have decreased by 50 percent," said Sidi Konaté, a technician at the ministry of environment.

The shrinking rainy seasons have confused farmers. "The start and end of the [planting] season have become unpredictable, and farmers do not know when to begin planting," Konaté commented.

These changes have pitted farmers, fishers and herders against one another. "The interior delta of the Niger River [which runs through Mali] has had an annual water loss of 3,000 million cubic metres. Communities are affected by desertification and shifting sand dunes."

Million-dollar rain

With the help of American consultants, the government has carried out 332 rainmaking flights since 2007, and allocated $32.5 million of its own funds from 2006 to 2010 for the rain project, the Minister of Finance, Sanoussi Touré, told IRIN.

When asked how the multimillion-dollar climate control plan could continue, project coordinator Diallo said start-up costs in the first three years were typically the steepest. "Afterward, recurrent expenses are limited essentially to operation costs and reinforcing local capacity of technicians."

Going against nature?

Sceptics of induced rain have said that chemicals or ice-nucleating bacteria sprayed into the clouds could harm the environment, but Diallo told IRIN they were using table salt to provoke condensation and rainfall, with no damage to the past two harvests from the artificial rainfall.

In places where the weather service had created rain in 2007, harvests had benefited from longer growing seasons and an average 18-percent increase in rainfall over the previous year; 2008 saw a similar increase in rainfall.

Growing seasons in the regions of Kayes, Mopti and Koulikoro were significantly longer. "These provoked rains allowed farmers to plant earlier, and to continue growing later than usual," Diallo said.

The higher rainfall in these areas has led to a 50-percent increase in the production of millet, sorghum, peanuts and cotton, the Minister of Agriculture, Agatham Ag Alhassane, told IRIN. "Our dream of creating rain has turned into a reality. When our countrymen see weather reports on national television, they are overjoyed."

Some may be overjoyed, but do not give weather engineers the credit. Bamoussa Diarra, 77, a farmer in Segou, 220km northeast of the capital, Bamako, told IRIN: "Since I was born, all I have done is farm. Never in my life have I heard of this nonsense - it is not true. Rain is God-given, not man-made. When did men become God?"

Amadé Guindo, a cereal producer from central Mali, agreed: "You would have to crazy to believe man can create rain." -IRIN


November 2009