Pakistan recently witnessed the deployment of artificial rain through a cloud-seeding operation as Lahore city struggled with one of the world’s worst air quality issues, attributed to its population exceeding 13 million. It experienced severe pollution levels, leading to the closure of schools, markets, and parks for four consecutive days in early December.

By the last weekend of the month, Lahore’s Air Quality Index (AQI) reached extremely hazardous levels, prompting the government to resort to cloud seeding. The operation, conducted using a small Cessna plane, aimed to induce rain in ten locations across the city.

Cloud seeding, a weather modification technique, involves the introduction of substances into clouds to encourage precipitation. Silver iodide flakes were used to enhance cloud moisture during winter. Known as “blueskying,” this practice has been employed in various countries including the Middle East, China, and India.

The provincial caretaker minister for the environment, Bilal Afzal, considered the cloud seeding in Lahore a success despite limited rainfall and suboptimal cloud conditions. The air quality improved from an AQI of over 300 to 189 with just a few millimetres of rain. However, the benefits proved short-lived as pollution levels returned to their previous state within a couple of days.

Afzal announced plans to conduct regular cloud seeding during the smog season, pointing out the environmental benefits. He noted that the emissions from the small plane were comparable to those generated by two or three cars running for about four hours.

However, climate experts have raised concerns about the unpredictability of cloud-seeding effects. Malik Amin Aslam, a former environment minister, highlighted the challenge of controlling triggered rain once initiated. Dr Ghulam Rasul from the International Union for Conservation of Nature warned of potential adverse outcomes such as hailstorms or torrential rain.

Aslam compared it to using steroids as a last-resort effort, while Rasul warned that excessive use might lead to very dry conditions, which can aggravate fog and smog persistence.

Pakistan’s transport sector is identified as a major contributor responsible for 50% of emissions in Lahore.

Dr Fehmeda Khan pointed out the urgency of addressing air quality concerns as it may increase respiratory tract diseases and allergies. Khan advises residents to take measures such as closing windows, minimising outdoor activities, wearing masks, and incorporating nasal saline rinses into their daily routines to combat the effects of outdoor air pollution.