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Venezuela tries to make it rain

In desperate need of water and electricity, Venezuela is "bombing" clouds and praying for rain.

Children watch a sunset at Isla Raton on the Orinoco river, about 625 miles south of Caracas, May 15, 2007. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Flying high over Venezuela’s southeastern territories, a plane banks and fires into a mass of clouds.

Venezuela is not at war with the skies but with a severe drought that has caused an electricity crisis and forced the government to resort to unconventional methods to make it rain.

The government began “bombing clouds,” or cloud seeding, late last year after it emerged that the country was facing a dire water shortage.

Using technology borrowed from Cuba and Chile, the idea is to fire a mixture of silver iodide, dry ice and salt into vertically growing cumulonimbus clouds to encourage raindrops to join together.

“Where we have sewn it has rained,” said Jose Gregorio Sottolano, president of the National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology. “What I can’t tell you, and it would be a lie, is how much water has fallen and if it has increased."

Other countries have been using the technique for decades. China is reported to have fired rockets into the clouds above Beijing before the 2008 Olympic Games to reduce pollution. The U.S. has been cloud seeding since 1946 to make it rain in areas suffering from drought, to reduce the size of hailstones in storms and fog around airports, and occasionally to make it snow at large ski resorts. Eleven western states have ongoing weather modification programs.

Sottolano said Venezuela is suffering from the effects of El Nino, a climatic phenomenon that can drastically reduce rainfall. The Orinoco, one of South America’s largest rivers, has seen its water levels reduced to record lows in recent months.

And that's a problem for a country that developed a national grid based on generating power from dams. Built in the 1960s, the grid aimed to take advantage of the country's abundance of rivers and the efficiency of hydro-electricity.

But the Venezuelan government is plagued by inefficiency and several of its thermoelectric plants — which heat water until it turns to steam, then use the steam to power a turbine — are only partly operating or still under construction. In mid-January, Planta Centro, the largest thermoelectric plant in the country, only had one of its five generators in operation.

Meanwhile, water levels in Venezuela’s reservoirs continue to fall. It is now the height of the dry season, when skies are typically cloudless.

That makes the technology hard to utilize. “The clouds need to be between four and seven kilometers high in order to be seeded,” said Sottolano.