With water increasingly scarce in its parched and heavily populated north-eastern plain, China has become the world’s leading rainmaker, using aircraft, rockets and even anti-aircraft guns to seed the clouds for precious moisture.

The hunt has become so intense that rival regions sometimes compete for clouds sailing across the sky.

Now, in 23 of the country’s 34 provinces, the provincial, county and municipal governments have set up what they call weather modification bureaus assigned to bombard the heavens regularly with chemicals in the hope of squeezing out more rainfall for China’s 1.3 billion residents.

The heavy cloud seeding is a dramatic example of China’s increasing difficulty in finding enough natural resources as its economy expands rapidly and its huge population consumes more goods.

According to Hu Zhijin, of the Weather Modification Research Centre at the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Science, official statistics show that 30 modified aircraft, 6,900 anti-aircraft guns and 3,800 rocket launchers, some mounted on trucks, were used repeatedly in attempts to change the weather across China’s driest areas in 2003. The effort is just as sustained this year, in response to drought conditions across a wide swathe of the country.

The result is that rainmakers across China have accumulated more hands-on practice than their counterparts elsewhere, wringing water from the clouds for season after season in intense government-sponsored programmes. “They have been doing it for a long time,” said Zhijin. “They do it every year. They have more experience, and they invest more funds in it.”

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