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  • Writer's pictureDr. Farrukh Chishtie

Beyond artificial rain: Addressing Lahore's smog crisis and air pollution across South Asia


Dr. Farrukh Chishtie

In December 2023, Pakistani authorities employed artificial rain to combat the severe smog crisis in Lahore, one of the world's most polluted cities. This initiative involved cloud seeding, a process where substances like silver iodide are dispersed into clouds to induce rain.

This artificial rain method was successful in producing drizzles in at least ten areas of Lahore. Despite this, the underlying causes of the smog—such as pollution from industrial emissions, vehicles, brick kilns, and crop residue burning—remain unaddressed. The worsening air pollution in Pakistan, particularly in Lahore, is partly due to a combination of low-grade diesel fumes, seasonal crop burning, and colder winter temperatures, which result in stagnant clouds of smog. This has catastrophic health consequences, including increased risks of strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases.

The use of artificial rain, though innovative, highlights a broader issue of reliance on short-term solutions rather than addressing the root causes of environmental degradation. The lack of implementation of environmental laws and policies in Pakistan exacerbates the situation. The smog problem is further intensified by growing industrialization in South Asia, leading to increased pollutants from factories, construction activities, and vehicles, especially in densely populated areas. Moreover, during cooler autumn and winter months, temperature inversion traps pollutants closer to the ground, worsening air quality.

While artificial rain can temporarily alleviate pollution levels, comprehensive strategies focusing on sustainable urban planning, strict enforcement of environmental regulations, and promotion of cleaner technologies are essential for long-term improvement of air quality and public health in regions like Lahore​.

The smog problem in Lahore, Pakistan, is part of a broader air pollution crisis affecting South Asia. This region, which includes nine of the world’s ten cities with the worst air pollution, faces significant challenges due to its air quality. The pollution in South Asia is not only a consequence of large industries and vehicles, common sources globally, but also includes contributions from other sources such as the combustion of solid fuels for cooking and heating, emissions from small industries like brick kilns, and the burning of municipal waste. These factors combine to create severe air quality issues, leading to an estimated 2 million premature deaths annually across the region.

Air Pollution: A catastrophic local and global issue

Air pollution remains a critical global health issue, with significant impacts on human health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly all of the global population breathe air that exceeds the recommended limits set by the organization, and this exposure is linked to a range of serious health conditions. Air pollution is identified as a major environmental threat and one of the leading causes of death among all risk factors, ranking just below hypertension, tobacco smoking, and high glucose. Globally, air pollution accounts for approximately 7 million premature deaths annually, attributable to diseases such as ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections like pneumonia. These infections primarily affect children in low- and middle-income countries.

The health effects of air pollution are extensive, impacting not only respiratory health but also contributing to preterm and low birth weight, asthma, and cognitive and neurological impairment. This situation represents a significant economic burden as well, imposing global health costs that amounted to more than US$ 8 trillion in 2019, or 6.1% of the global gross domestic product.

In the context of South Asia, the air pollution crisis is particularly severe. South Asia is home to nine of the world's ten cities with the worst air pollution. This pollution causes an estimated 2 million premature deaths across the region each year and incurs significant economic costs. In addition to the global sources of air pollution like large industries, power plants, and vehicles, South Asia faces additional challenges from the combustion of solid fuels for cooking and heating, emissions from small industries such as brick kilns, and the burning of municipal waste. These regional specifics further exacerbate the health impacts of air pollution in South Asia. Here are recommendations for Pakistan and the broader South Asia region to address air pollution:

For Pakistan:

  1. Strengthen and enforce environmental regulations.

  2. Promote cleaner technologies in industry and transportation.

  3. Implement sustainable urban planning strategies.

  4. Increase green spaces and reforestation efforts.

  5. Raise public awareness about air pollution and health impacts.

  6. Invest in renewable energy sources.

For South Asia:

  1. Coordinate regional policies to address transboundary air pollution.

  2. Address unique regional contributors like brick kilns and solid fuel combustion.

  3. Increase investment in public transportation systems.

  4. Develop regional air quality standards and monitoring systems.

  5. Enhance regional cooperation for technology transfer and knowledge sharing.

  6. Encourage community participation in air quality improvement initiatives.

So, in Lahore, the use of artificial rain to combat smog indicates a response to the immediate crisis. However, this approach does not address the fundamental causes of air pollution, such as deforestation, industrial emissions, and pollution from cars. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of effective implementation of environmental laws. In the broader context of South Asia, tackling air pollution requires a multifaceted approach that includes not only immediate measures like artificial rain but also long-term strategies. These strategies should focus on sustainable urban planning, enforcing environmental regulations, promoting cleaner technologies, and addressing the unique contributing factors in each region. Therefore, while artificial rain can provide temporary relief, comprehensive and sustainable solutions are needed to address the root causes of air pollution in South Asia. This includes a coordinated approach across the region to address both common and unique pollution sources effectively.

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