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Meteorologists Pitch In to Alleviate Drought in Kenya

A Somali woman from southern Somalia, washes clothes outside her makeshift shelter in a refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, August 4, 2011

An extreme cycle of drought in the Horn of Africa has pushed millions into hunger. Now, Kenyan meteorologists are exploring ways to enhance rainfall in areas of the country dried out by climate change.

The latest report from the Famine Early Warning Systems, known as FEWS-NET, shows areas of northern Kenya locked in a severe drought.

FEWS-NET warns cattle are dying from a scarcity of water and more than one million people are in a food emergency.

And the rainy season is not expected for several more months.

But what if scientists could make it rain?

The Kenyan Meteorological Department has begun exploring ways to induce rain in dry areas of the country, through a process known as cloud-seeding. Deputy director of the KMD, Peter Ambenje says his department has begun taking measurements to see what is possible.

"You have to study the clouds to see the ones that are amenable for seeding, so those studies have to be carried out. See the ones that you can seed, see the ones that cannot be seeded and this and that. So there have to be some studies initially to ascertain that yes this is working," he explained.

Cloud-seeding is a technique to enhance rainfall by introducing particles - often silver iodide crystals - into cloud systems, to help condense water vapor into raindrops.

The particles are either shot into the clouds using rockets, or dispersed from passing airplanes.

The question is whether such a tactic can help bring rain to drought affected areas.

Ambenje is doubtful. "All that that does is to enhance rainfall probably during the rainfall season," he said. "You know, for you to generate rainfall, there are a number of factors that you have to look at, moisture availability and so on and so forth. So during a drought you may not be able to enhance rain in the cloud system."

Without some moisture already in the system, and without the right clouds to seed, there is little that scientists can do to induce rain.

Still, the Kenyan government is going ahead with the project, which is part of the country's Vision 2030 initiative - a long-term plan to foster Kenya's development in the coming decades.

And while it may be little help this year, creating better weather conditions for farmers and maintaining water supplies for cattle, could help the country better prepare for future food emergencies.