Rain makers

Thursday, 29 March 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Worried by the possibility of another drought-hit year that could lead to power cuts, the Government is considering hiring experts to create artificial rain over catchment areas to improve rainfall, and thereby avert a power crisis. But there is danger of this becoming just another tax-payer funded effort with limited results.  

Sri Lanka is not the first country to consider artificial rain as a solution to drought. Indian states such as Karnataka and Maharashtra have spent large amounts of money experimenting with artificial rain, but with limited success. The process of seeding clouds with dry ice or silver iodide is only possible if clouds exist in the first place, and even when seeded, the clouds may flow over the desired area or provide limited amounts of rain. 

In the US State of Texas, artificial rain is used to increase the volume of regular rain in chronic drought areas. In all these instances, the impact is limited and does not necessarily justify the massive expense. In fact, experts believe governments are better off using their funds to promote drought-resistant crops, drip irrigation and other measures, rather than spending money on artificial rain. 

For Sri Lanka, artificial rain has little to do with saving agriculture. The plan is to create artificial rain above key catchment areas housing Castlereagh, Victoria, Kotmale and Mausakelle, as part of a pilot project. The Power and Energy Ministry has already obtained Cabinet approval to conduct an environmental assessment. Local officials are also expected to visit Thailand to see how artificial rain has been used to combat drought in that country, before Thai experts are hired to make rain in Sri Lanka. Essentially, this would be a stop gap effort, as artificial rain cannot be depended on each year, and would be too costly and inconsistent to justify massive allocation of public funds. 

The main reason for this expensive stopgap measure is because the Government has failed to get any power project operational, despite the lapse of three years. Despite numerous warnings of a pending power shortage in 2018/2019, the Government was unable to break through the stalemate between the Public Utilities Commission and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). Even though many proposals were made to establish new LNG power or increase renewable energy, the entire sector has basically been gridlocked and unable to roll out a project in time to meet shortages. 

This situation is worsened by the looming Provincial and Presidential Elections, possibly as early as next year, where any shortage of power will be a political liability as well. With time running out, and unable to get its house in order, the Government has hit on artificial rain as a prayer of sorts. Increased use of thermal power would have a larger economic impact, as increased fuel imports would widen Sri Lanka’s trade gap and threaten its fiscal consolidation process.     

Despite all Sri Lanka’s efforts, electricity prices remain stubbornly high and constrain investment. Delays in power plant implementation have resulted in cost overruns, corruption and wastage. Emergency power purchases, which have also been considered, would be another side effect of public funds being misused because of Government inefficiency.  

Sri Lanka’s power sector has been badly managed, and unless the Government works on sustainable policies, it will only be creating larger problems that nothing will wash away.