Blame it on the Sand: Beijing's Fake Rain

While in Beijing last week, treehugger extraordinaire Lester Brown might have noticed that China's capital is overrun with a lot of fake stuff. The latest Hollywood movie? Less than a dollar at the corner DVD shop. Your "official" Olympics mascot toy? Unofficial. This vegetable jiaozi I'm chewing on? Not exactly vegetable. That surprise rain shower? Not so real. The most recent rash of sandstorms to hit the Big Dumpling has left the Beijing municipal government with few options to keep the city sheltered and (relatively) clean. Enter rainmaking technology. After the worst of April's tempests loosed 330,000 tons of sand on Beijing, sending air quality up to "hazardous" level five, the government fired back at the heavens with seven rocket shells and burned 163 pieces of "cigarette-like sticks" containing silver iodide from points around the city. State news agencies reported "the heaviest rainfall in Beijing this spring," helping to clear the air and give the city a good wash.

While many countries have seeded clouds since the 1950s, China's recently become the self-proclaimed world leader in counterfeit rain, which, at a cost of $266 million over a decade it has used to stem drought, fight forest fires and now relieve the capital of its pollution. What all the cloud-seeding rockets cannot help of course is the real problem: poor land and water management in the north, where excessive farming and grazing, bad irrigation, and deforestation continue to loosen top soil, expose sand, and expand the Gobi desert. According to Brown, "it represents the largest conversion of productive land to desert anywhere in the world." The result of that conversion has been blowing into Beijing steadily each year, carrying with it factory smog and exacerbating the city's already drastic air pollution. Though the government last week announced it had made "major progress" in slowing desertification through its enormous replanting projects and by agricultural education, "we're not anywhere close to arresting this situation," Brown said during his visit here. The problem, my Beijing friends know—and even my Korean and Japanese and American friends know—is still blowing in the wind.

While the direct environmental dangers and indeed effectiveness of playing with the weather has yet to be determined—though one deadly incident in Britain in 1952 may offer a cautionary tale—many argue that under current conditions, China's drought-plagued farmers couldn't survive without the occasional fake rainshower. But using rainmaking as a green wash to clean up or even block sandstorms in Beijing seems not only unhelpful but detrimental. As local environmental expert Wen Bo tells Treehugger, efforts like rainmaking "wash away not just the dirt, but people's memory" of the pollution and sand problem—one of the few things in Beijing that's actually real.