Thailand — A final check on the tarmac before the crew of the King Air launches their latest mission. Their objective: to make rain.
The concept of making rain in Thailand was originally devised by the country’s king as a drought-busting measure, but more recently, it has been used to fight pollution levels.
Their aircraft carries a mixture of salt, silver iodide and dry ice – a recipe the Thais say can successfully trigger rainfall when released into the clouds.
A severe drought in northern Thailand has added to pollution woes
Once airborne, the aircraft drops the crystallized powder in the hope of “seeding” rain clouds and triggering rain.
The objective is to increase the amount of water or ice particles in the air, generating rain to wash pollution particles from the skies.
The rainmakers insist they are having some success, but it is clear there are limits to this technology. There must already be clouds in the sky to seed.
“The objective is to make it rain in the north because haze is coming from forest fires or from burning garbage in the community,” says Parinya Sutthikosen of the Royal Rainmaking Bureau.
“We have to reduce the fires and the amount of haze. The north is facing a problem that will not go away.”
On the ground, residents are hoping the rainmakers will be successful.
In the northern city of Chiang Mai, it is hot, humid and getting harder to breathe.
Soaring temperatures and little rainfall helps pollutants clog the air over the northern basin.
Many families worry about the impact on their health, especially that of young children.
Sore throats, itchy eyes, and rising levels of asthma are common complaints.
The choking pollution has raised health fears for residents of Chiang Mai
Food vendor Kotchakorn Srisuwan says her children’s health has deteriorated since they moved to Chiang Mai 2 years ago.
“Chiang Mai should be a nice place with clean air. But when I look at the sky its dark. Is it dust? I’m not sure.”
Someone who is sure is Doctor Phongtape Wiwatanadate at Chiang Mai university’s department of community medicine.
He has been researching the link between northern Thailand’s poor air quality and its increasing health problems and says the government’s ‘clean air’ standards are not strict enough.
Thailand allows more than twice the amount of dangerous dust particles in the air than the European Union, he says, so that even days considered low in Thailand would be well above acceptable levels in Europe.
In fact, according to Dr Phongtape’s research, for the past month Chiang Mai has exceeded safe EU levels every single day.
The rainmakers say their flights are having some success
That is a worrying thought for local residents like Wilawan Saksan.
“It piles up – think about it,” she says. “If we breathe it every day, think how it’s going to affect us?”
Dr Phongtape says the government must revise its safety guidelines for the sake of public health.
“Hopefully we will come up with a new standard level and say to the government ‘Hey you have to set a more acceptable level because you have to take care of the people.'”
For now though, it seems that job will continue to fall to the rainmakers.