Recent reports of China embarking on world’s most ambitious cloud-seeding programme should not surprise India. In fact, China has been carrying out successful weather control and modifications for a decade. During the 2008 Summer Olympics held in Beijing, China, for the first time, fired a barrage of 1,110 cutting-edge military rockets into its evening clouds to make the opening ceremony precipitation-free. However, the recently announced project aimed at bringing artificial rain to an area three times that of Spain, has been planned over the Tibetan Plateau, giving India, reasons to be wary.
Tibet is the source of Asia’s most important rivers, including the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong. Flowing through China, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the rivers constitute the lifeline of nearly 3.4 billion or 46 per cent of the world’s 7.06 billion population.
Since the plateau could be considered a shared ecological frontier, an anthropogenic change over the fragile ecosystem would have severe ramifications not just for lower riparian India, but other neighbouring South and Southeast Asian countries.
According to the South China Morning Post, China’s reliance on ‘cloud seeding’ or the scientific intervention of using aircrafts to spray chemicals like silver iodide, potassium chloride and sodium chloride into the clouds to aid precipitation, is a part of its climate change mitigation strategy, as the climate models in China have projected that the Tibetan plateau is likely to suffer severe droughts due to an estimated rise in temperature and decrease in regional rainfall. While the prediction could be held true given the current climate change scenario, however, the need for Tibet region to rely on such techniques to induce artificial rain-making system, is questionable. As the largest store of accessible freshwater outside the North Pole and South Pole and often referred to as Asia’s water tower, the Tibetan plateau is hydrologically much self-sufficient.
India should therefore seek to strengthen its monitoring capabilities in the Northeast and border areas through geospatial technology that includes Global Positioning System (GPS) and Geographical Information System (GIS) and Remote Sensing technologies for accurate weather forecasts and data gathering, India would be able to keep a strict vigil of Chinese activities and prepare itself for an effective counter- response. Moreover, an increase in water content in the rivers originating in the Tibetan plateau would be devastating for the lower riparians.
Every year, the average amount of rainfall during monsoon cause rivers such as the Brahmaputra or as known as the Yarlung Tsangpo in China to overflow, leading to subsequent destructive floods in India’s North-East. According to the state government’s estimates, the floods and erosion have cost Assam 2,753 human lives and an economy loss of ₹4659.472 crore. The flooding last year, in 2017, caused death of 157 people and devastated 29 districts of Assam. According to the state disaster management authorities, in the past five years, flooding has killed about 500 people.
To secure the lives of its 3.5 million population in the fragile ecosystem of Brahmaputra in the wake of China’s cloud seeding ambition in Tibet, India should develop its own hydrological models for flood prediction, even as we continue to receive the flood warning data from China. Examining the flow of river regularly, that includes both flood season as well as non-monsoonal flow data from its own hydro-meteorological stations would enhance India’s capacity in detecting any suspicious activity upstream that could possibly lead to a natural disaster in India.
China’s new project involves placing thousands of chambers on the Tibetan plateau burning solid fuels to produce silver iodide. The iodide would act as condensate for water molecules in the air, which would fall to the earth as rain or snow.
According to a chemical engineer studying atmospheric aerosols at Columbia University, silver iodide, even in its non-toxic form, has significant potential to disrupt the aquatic ecosystem as it enters the groundwater as rain. A study in 2016 by the Wyoming Weather Modification Pilot Programme found that possible consequence of cloud seeding includes rain suppression, flood, tornado and silver iodide toxicity. Moreover, the mechanism is unreliable over a long period or on a large scale. A growing body of literature substantiate that not only does cloud seeding fail to achieve the desirable effect, it also could generate harmful consequences.
Geo-engineering experts caution that an artificial manipulation of the weather to produce rain in one area could have unintended consequences such as low rainfall elsewhere. It would therefore be in China and India’s interest to mutually engage in a joint, thorough scientific study to obtain reliable data from the area. Beijing and New Delhi will have to undertake seeding trials that could guide the use of technology, framework for conduct and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) before tens of thousands of additional chambers are built across the Tibetan plateau to implement the project over an area of about 1.6 million square kilometres.
However, it is not just the environmental threat, but the likelihood of significant strategic implications that should be India’s concern. The Sino- Indian bilateral relationship has remained tense in recent years owing to their ongoing boundary dispute, discontent related to trade imbalances and military standoffs between the two countries at the Himalayan plateau of Doklam. Speculations are ripe that China may use its weather modification technology as a strategic weapon against India to distort weather and unleash floods and droughts, during times of conflict. Such a strategy is not new. Used during the Vietnam War by the name of Operation Popeye, the strategy was to increase rainfall during the monsoon season to make the terrain muddy and difficult to traverse for enemy fighters. While in the Sino-Indian context, such speculation has remained theoretical so far, given India’s recent experience; their practical application cannot be ruled out.China has already begun to employ unconventional tools of coercive water diplomacy by denying the flood-warning data on the river Brahmaputra to India during the Doklam standoff, leaving the latter vulnerable.
In so far as the strategic implications of weather modification is concerned, India should ensure that China does not breach the UN's Environmental Modification convention (ENMOD) prohibiting states from ‘engaging in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party.’
An important way forward for India is to build on its environmental intelligence (EI) capabilities. As any form of decision making would require a holistic view, integration of research across the components of the cloud seeding, as well as its interactions with the regions and subsequent ecosystem, is imperative. The Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) should lead the creation of a platform for working across the observation, modelling, and data management.
Given that China is increasingly employing such unconventional means of diplomacy across the region, India should accordingly prepare its respective cadres.
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Aparna Roy is a Fellow and Lead Climate Change and Energy at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED). Aparna's primary research focus is on ...Read More +
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