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Anti-hail guns: Are they really needed?

As usual, hailstones have badly damaged fruit and other seasonal crops in Himachal this year too, with the farming community having no option but to watch the destruction as mute spectators. Orchardists were promised ‘fruitful’ days by the government about three years ago in the form of anti-hail guns, but the apple growing areas of Shimla, Kullu, Mandi and Kinnaur districts are yet to see even a single such marvel of technology. It’s been almost three years now since the inception of very idea of installing anti-hail guns in the apple-growing areas, but not much concrete has been done by the government in this regard. At the first instance it appears that the need for anti-hail guns in the fruit zone is dire, but their technical capability to avert the freakish phenomenon is doubted by many.

Source: State statistical handbook and Weather Monitoring Station, Shimla

If we look at past experiences across the globe in countries like USA, China, Netherlands, Israel, Mexico, etc, we can conclude that there is 50-50 chance of successfully averting the wrath of hailstones. As per technical details available, the acetylene-based hail guns supported by a web of radars, are most effective if fired at least 20-30 minute before the expected time of hail shower. The area covered by each gun is approximately 80-90 Ha i.e. within a radius of about 500 meters.

One tends to question the effectiveness of these anti-hail guns in the wake to rapid and unexpected climate change process where extremes are growing for the worst with lesser unexpected rains and above-normal temperature deviations (8-9 degrees) during summers in many parts of the hill state. To anyone’s surprise, Shimla broke its 170- year record of highest temperature this May by touching the 32.4°C mark. Lower and upper Himachal has simmered alike year after year for last two decade now.

Perhaps a quick analysis of climatic phenomenon for last 15-20 years in the hill state and especially of Shimla will clear the idea about what actually is happening in the apple producing belt. It is interesting to study the changing precipitation pattern at the state level, but unfortunately sufficient and relevant temporal data in not readily available.  The relation of snowfall, rainfall and annual apple production has a direct correlation. It can be seen from the graph that the snowfall in 1995 has been above normal and between 1995 and 2000 the annual average snowfall has been almost consistent throughout, varying from 45mm to 180mm. Beyond 2001, there have been extreme variations with few years noticing no snow or very less snowfall in the region. These extremes coincide with the drought and rain deficient years and consequent fall and rise in apple production throughout.

Again, years 2003-06 had seen a good spell of snowfall and the apple production too saw a consistent growth for these four years. But in year 2007 the snowfall failed and the corresponding apple production too saw a downfall. In year 2008 again the snowfall (chilling hours) was fairly good, although below average but the crop again saw an increased output. Year 2009 was a draught-hit year and the consequent apple production with initial official projection of crossing previous year’s mark of 592 thousand metric tonnes fell to 280 thousand metric tonnes. This year (2010), the apple production is pegged at 500 thousand metric tonnes (2.5 crore boxes) but already a number of hail spells across the apple belt has already taken its toll on 60-70% crop, as being reported by media.

It is interesting to observe that as per the official records on apple production from year 2000 to 2009 there has been a negligible change in the corresponding land area under apple plantation. One could ask how can apple production with mostly aging rootstock and same crop area increase by about 100%? One, it could be due to intensive dependence on fertilizers, which is true, or due to more favourable climatic conditions, which weren’t the case. A more apt reason I think is increase in unregistered land under apple crop, i.e. encroachment of forest area in upper reaches of apple growing belts. These unregistered tracts are influential in changing the apple production figures at state level. No wonder, the climatic variations are bound to happen with rampant scraping of thousands of hectares of valuable forest cover. Year after year, the forest department reports increase in the net area under forest cover on papers, whereas the ground reality speaks for the contrary.

In the wake of increase in hail-stone spell across the state, the government is looking forward to buy about 40 guns and 4 radars to operate an umbrella to protect the fruit belt of the state. However, the actual effectiveness and the area coverage provided by each gun is about 80-90 Ha i.e. roughly within a radius of about 500m. Going by these figures, 40 guns will roughly cover an area of about 3500-4000 Ha, whereas the total registered area under apple crop in the state is about 90,000Ha, thus the initial protection will be provided only for 4.5% area under the apple crop with 50-50 chances of its success. Knowing that the guns are most effective when installed at the higher reaches i.e. between 2500-4000m and the apple farms within these altitudes are mostly encroached forest area, so in a way the government is indirectly paying to protect the encroachers or the real culprits of local climate change. What a tragedy.

The government on the other hand is sitting blindfold on the issue of deficient rainfall and the consequent fall in water table across the state. If one consider rainfall pattern in Shimla, in last 10 years, except for year 2006, which was a rain surplus year, (with 6% above normal rainfall) rest all nine years have been rain deficient, varying from 10% to 50% below normal. Even year 2009 was a rain deficient year receiving about 36% below normal rainfall. These patterns in overall rainfall figures are likely to see more declines in years to come. But are we prepared for the same? A big NO! Apart from the deficient rains, a number of development projects like numerous roads being carved out to reach one’s doorstep, which in a way has become an ill-fated fad in hills, and hundreds of mini-micro and mega hydroelectric projects thriving on dynamite blasts, has also contributed to the downfall of water table and drying of natural water springs in the apple growing belt.

The need of the hour is not just anti-hail guns but also the cloud seeding technology to bring in timely rainfalls and snowfall to maintain the moisture content of the soil in apple producing belts. Govt need to look for a better and inclusive 2-in-1 technology to prepare for the inclement extreme conditions. Cloud seeding involves spraying chemicals into the air like silver iodide which is the primary silver iodide-based ice-nucleating complex, which causes moisture particles to expand, forming drops of rain that fall to the ground. It can increase the annual precipitation by about 10% if designed and implemented in a scientific way. Various researches conducted across globe have shown a negligible or no environmentally harmful effect arising out of cloud seeding.

The cloud seeding is intended to augment rainfall and snowfall in draught-prone and rain-deficient areas, thus providing sufficient water for various uses such as hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, Domestic and industrial usages etc. along with replenishing of water table. The extensive deforestation, increase in pollution and subsequent increase in global warming complemented by the increase in area under fruit production, especially apple, and the rapid population growth and urbanisation in Himachal Pradesh and neighbouring states will cause water demand to regularly outstrip water supply in the near future, especially during inevitable droughts. In countries like USA, Netherlands, China, Israel etc, cloud seeding is being successfully practiced for last few decades.

In the wake of abrupt climatic change, the government should look and reconsider the purchase and installation of anti-hail guns along with cloud seeding technology in order to create value for money and also to prolong the future of fruit and vegetable crops in the state and above all, the humanity itself.

Even if 40 anti-hail guns are installed, initial protection will be provided only for 4.5% area under the apple crop, with 50-50 chances of success. But a greater concern is whether the government is indirectly paying to protect encroachers who have set up orchards in the higher reaches where these guns would be set up.

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Author: ih

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