London, June 28 : Believe it or not, China has a Home Guard shooting at the sky to ensure that the forthcoming Olympics in Beijing stay dry
In the Fragrant Hills northwest of Beijing, a stone's throw from the Temple of Azure Clouds, a group of villagers is preparing to do battle with the gods.
As soon as the order comes - day or night - eight farmers will rush to a battery of 37mm anti-aircraft guns installed in a courtyard in the village of Beixing. Four will carry the shells to the guns, two will load them and two will take aim and open fire at the enemy in the sky.
Their mission is to protect the honour of a nation. But their targets are the rain clouds and smog that threaten to spoil the Beijing Olympics.
The Beixing gunners are among 100 villagers around the Chinese capital who are on standby to "seed" clouds - forcing them to shed or retain their rain - before the opening ceremony of the Games on August 8.
Guided by the Beijing Meteorological Bureau, they will fire shells containing silver iodide and other chemicals into any clouds seen heading towards the roofless Bird's Nest national stadium.
As concern mounts over air pollution in Beijing, they could also be ordered to induce showers during the Games to clear a toxic haze of dust and vehicle and industrial emissions.
Beixing is one of 21 sites around the capital where the Government has set up man-made hail-prevention and rain-increasing work stations, each with up to four anti-aircraft cannon from the 1960s.
They will be backed up by three aircraft, which can also scatter rain-inducing chemicals, and by hundreds of experts who will use radar and other equipment at the Beijing Meteorological Bureau.
The rainmaking army is just one illustration of how far China has gone to ensure that nothing will spoil the Olympics, an event that it hopes will showcase its staggering economic progress in the past three decades.
It also serves a longer-term purpose: to combat the water shortages that plague northern China and represent one of the biggest threats to continued economic growth.
Cloud seeding was pioneered in the US in the 1940s and was first tried by Chinese scientists in 1958. China now has the largest rainmaking programme in the world, ahead of Russia and Israel, and is expanding its operation faster than any of the 24 other countries that use the technology.
From 1995 to 2003 China spent 266 million dollars on the technology, according to state media. In the past five years it has spent more than 500 million dollars, officials said.
The country is now said to have employed over 50,000 people for the task, using an arsenal that includes 6,781 artillery guns and 4,110 rocket launchers.
The current five-year plan in China has called for an increase in man-made rain of 50 billion cubic metres a year - nearly enough to fill the Yellow River, its second-biggest waterway.