PRACHUAP KHIRI KHAN, Thailand (Reuters) - Every day during the scorching heat of Thailand’s dry season, four ageing planes take off from an airstrip southwest of Bangkok carrying cargoes of salt.
The pilots seek out whatever clouds might be floating around, and then, at 6,000 feet, tell their crew to start shoveling the crystalline powder out the door to seed them in the hope of provoking rain.
Welcome to the work of the Bureau of Royal Rainmaking, a small front line in Thailand’s fight against drought — a struggle likely to become increasingly desperate if scientists and governments meeting in Bangkok this week fail to agree a master plan to tackle global warming.
After two gloomy U.N. reports on climate change, the delegates are looking at ways to combat greenhouse gas emissions, which environmental groups say the world has the means to cut at little cost.
Should they fail to produce a plan, Thailand’s Royal Rainmakers are going to find themselves in strong demand.
Several hours after one recent flight, around 10 minutes of rain fell on a small part of the fruit-growing province of Prachuap Khiri Khan, near the Myanmar border.
“It may not be heavy rain, but it helps,” said 40-year-old pineapple farmer Pikul Sinsert. “If we waited for the seasonal rains to come in late May, all our pineapples would die. But five or ten minutes of artificial rain helps them survive.”
Climate change and drought are major economic issues for Thailand, the world’s largest exporter of rice and natural rubber. It produces 20 million metric tons of un-milled rice a year, and 3 million metric tons of rubber.
The Pacific El Nino weather phenomenon, an abnormal warming of sea surface temperatures off the west coast of South America that tends to produce drought in Southeast Asia and Australia, offers a glimpse of what could be in store in a warmer world.
The latest El Nino event coincided with Thailand’s dry season this year, prompting Bangkok to encourage farmers to switch to alternative crops that require less water.
Officials fear a slightly delayed onset of seasonal rains because of the lingering effects of the latest El Nino, which has recently fizzled out.
Eight royal rainmaking units — so-called in honor of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is credited with inventing a rainmaking process 30 years ago — have been hard at work boosting reservoirs in the event of a worst-case scenario drought.
“This year we started making artificial rain in February, preparing ourselves for an El Nino-related drought that has already hit our neighbors,” Royal Rainmaking Bureau chief Wattana Sukarnjanaset said.
The rainmakers, whose work has attracted attention from as far afield as Tanzania, have also been called up in the face of other emergencies.
When choking forest fire haze engulfed the northern province and city of Chiang Mai in March, numerous rainmaking flights went up to try to create a downpour that would clear away smoke said to be affecting the health of 5 million people.
Unfortunately, their lack of success demonstrated the limits of the technology.
“It all depends on how much humidity there is,” said Tanthai Polharn, a Ministry of Agriculture scientist. “How can we make rain if there’s not a single cloud in the sky?”
For the moment, though, the rainmakers are taking it a little easier as daily storms dump bucket-loads of the real stuff on the capital and across other parts of the country.