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.
Not to mention that some meteorologists doubt whether cloud seeding works at all.
“The main problem is finding the right type of cloud at the right temperature — naturally, with the technique being very expensive, one needs to have an expert team with good cloud physics measurement equipment on board the aircraft, for any chance of a cost effective result being achieved,” said Roger Williams, former director of the Bermuda Weather Service.
"A seeding project in desert areas or during the ‘dry season’ is likely to be a waste of time and money,” he said.
And even if it works, it will have to rain a lot in the wet season if Venezuela is to overcome this crisis.
The hydroelectric dam at El Guri reservoir supplies 44 percent of national demand. But a report by Edelca, the state company that manages that reservior, revealed dangerously low levels.
As of Feb. 1, the reservoir was at 258 meters, 14 meters below its ideal level: If it falls below 240 meters, its turbines will cease working altogether. The report concluded that if desperate measures are not taken, Venezuela could see its national grid collapse by June.
On Monday, Chavez declared an electrical emergency due to what he claimed was the worst drought in 100 years. "We have done various studies and we're ready to declare an electricity emergency, seeing as El Guri is falling by 13 centimeters every day," he said.
Aside from bombing clouds, the government has also imposed water and electricity rationing, unpopular measures in a year when it faces a stern test in upcoming National Assembly elections in September.
In Caracas, rationing was suspended last month after the first day produced chaotic scenes in which a lack of functioning traffic lights caused bottlenecks and schools were not able to operate. President Hugo Chavez sacked the minister he had placed in charge of the newly created Electricity Ministry and appointed his long-serving finance minister instead.
The electricity crisis has prompted a debate about its causes. The government line: Blame the weather.
“Has there been a delay in some projects? Yes, that’s true. Has there been inefficient management in some areas? That’s true. But the only cause of electricity rationing is the drought,” Chavez said recently.
His critics say underinvestment during an oil boom that saw consumption increase by 28 percent in seven years is the primary cause.
“Part of the problem is due to the drought — that’s undeniable,” said Daniel Varnagy, director of the Economic and Administrative Sciences department at Caracas’ Simon Bolivar University. “But the drought is affecting us because the recommendations for planning for growth in the electricity sector were not followed.”
For now, Chavez will rely on any solution he can find to fix what is a critical situation in an election year.