Dawn News

Mirages and miracles

THERE are many ‘water cars’ amongst us, even though Mr Waqar’s little contraption is hardly likely to find a buyer now.

Look no further than the famed coal deposits of the Thar desert. Almost three years have elapsed since the government started putting down good taxpayer money for a project to gasify the coal underground. Today I hear estimates ranging up to Rs900m as the amount the government has already poured into this desert ‘water car’ project.

Now underground coal gasification is not rocket science, and I believe there are countries where it is being done on a very small scale. It is a process that was theoretically discovered in 1868, and today, almost a century-and-a-half later, remains confined mostly to test burns and experimental projects. Lots of countries are trying out the technology, but nobody has yet figured out how to do it on any scale that makes commercial sense.

Of course this doesn’t mean that Pakistan shouldn’t be trying the process out. What it does mean, however, is that we should be very careful and very sceptical in assessing the proposals and measuring performance before we start putting scarce and precious taxpayer money behind such projects.

The brains behind the project, Dr Samar Mubarakmand, was asked on TV back in January how much he thinks the project will cost, and his response left the poor anchor’s mouth wide open: “I’ll need about one-and-a-half billion dollars”, he replied effortlessly.

Let me say this the only way I know how: that’s a lot of money.

Is it worth our while to throw that kind of money behind a project that, in one hundred years of development has not been able to move very far beyond the drawing board anywhere in the world?

Of course not. The upfront amount is so large it could be better utilised in tried and tested technology like hydropower instead.

But the real problem is this: we’re asking this question after Rs900m of taxpayer money has already been thrown into the project.

There is no shortage of people with other quick-fix solutions to our enduring crises, and part of the pitch they use to sell their quackery to the public is this: “the awful choices that the power crisis presents the country can be avoided. Here is a painless new technology that conjures up energy out of thin air. Believe in me, invest in my venture, and I will lead you out of your troubles without any painful choices!” In the same show, the doctor also claimed he could bridge the entire shortfall of gas in one year, and went on to say that the gas crisis is “no big deal really.”

I agree that a readiness to believe these kinds of schemes is partially due to the falling standards of education in our country.

But this readiness is also in large measure the product of a complex crisis that leaves us starved of a vital resource with no immediate relief on the horizon. For the man dying of thirst in the desert, the waters of the mirage up ahead shimmer much more brightly.

I remember in 1999, when Pakistan was bottled up behind a wall of sanctions and foreign exchange reserves had fallen to near default levels, the government of the day nearly fell for a scam similar to one of those letters you get in your email inbox periodically promising large sums of money in some semi-illicit transfer.

Bankers at the time had clearly recognised the scam, but found it hard to persuade the government that the people on the other end were only common con artists. Thankfully the con artists themselves vanished before anything could be bargained with them and nothing was wasted, but at a time when Pakistan was starved of foreign exchange, the words of the con artists felt very sweet to some people in government.

There is no shortage of other such scams and dubious propositions and charlatan’s gambits in our country. Consider a few small examples. Have you ever heard anyone tell you that the Thar desert has 185 billion tons of coal? Well they’re partially right.

What they don’t tell you is that less than half of this amount is mineable coal, the rest being in a seam so thin and so deep underground that it would be pointless to try and mine it.

Have you heard estimates of how much potential wind power has in southern Sindh? I’ve heard people throw crazy numbers around like 100,000 megawatts. But do you know how they calculate potential electricity from wind? It takes wind data from at least three decades if not more to be able to make even the most rudimentary calculations on how much electricity any given wind corridor will generate. Wind data from the Gharo corridor doesn’t go back more than one decade. So how on earth can we claim to know what the real potential is?

In every field that has relevance to the power sector, there are cranks and scam artists operating with offers to solve the entire power crisis in one go. The real pity with this is that real solutions get buried under the fake ones. Wind power has tremendous room to grow in many parts of the country, as does solar. Solar heaters are used very effectively in a growing number of homes and hotels around the country, and micro-hydel has almost become a cottage industry in Swat and Besham, so widespread is its use in the mountains.

These innovative solutions need to be encouraged and supported, and every crank and con man caught trying to sell us snake oil using promises of instant solutions takes away from the effort to adapt and innovate. This, to me, is the real tragedy of the water car scam.

The writer is a Karachi-based journalist covering business and economic policy.

Twitter: @khurramhusain


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Comments (10) Closed

Fuzail Z. Ahmad
Aug 09, 2012 12:54pm
The author should not be comparing Dr. Samar's proposal with the "Water Kit" proposer. That is indeed a very unkind comparison. Dr. Samar Mubarakmand is no ordinary person. He might still fail but in the process, the "precious" tax payers' money will have taught many lessons to Pakistanis in the coal field.
Aug 09, 2012 06:36am
It is good to work in a project like gasification of Thar coal. It is true that this is such a project which have never been turned into commercial project since one and a half century but it doesn't mean that we should not try. If we go to history of the earth then we'll find that for almost four centuries scientists of the world believed that earth is center of the universe but when Galelio invented telescope then it became clear that earth is just a tiny part of the vast universe. What do you think was that all cost-free. No every big thing bears big cost. But on the other hand it is the important point that we are underdeveloped nation and have to focus on the basic needs of the country people. And we can focus on some other projects which might cost less and are the need of the time as solar energy could replace the shortage of electricity etc. We should encourage such little efforts to fulfill our big needs.
Aug 09, 2012 11:46am
The real sad thing about the water car scam is not that there is a con artist about and that he was given publicity by our media and even got endorsed by some of our politicians, though this does indicate the sorry state of scientific literacy of our society. The real tragedy is that the top persons in our sciencitic establishments are so ignorant as to fall for this scam. It is as if our chief economist were to endorse Double Shah in order to solve our economic problems.
Aug 09, 2012 12:13pm
You may be right Khurram , but in our country it is hard to seperate the shaff from the rice. When our politicians come and lie so blandly on television, as if they have sanctions from Allah you should not blame the public to fall for these scams. It is going to take a decade to get back on our feet , so why did no one predict this energy crises before. It is good to have hind sight but smart we all are or over smart. Lala Rukh Paracha
Bakhtawer Bilal
Aug 09, 2012 12:57pm
Very well said. Only if we would start awakening up from the nostalgia of the past and learn from the current science and concrete examples, we may start moving in the right direction.
Aug 09, 2012 05:03pm
Agree with the coal reasoning. Too many resources being spent on experiment, of which we don't have much. Also, they should not make huge claims and give false hopes to people unless they have successfully experimented with it at some large scale (1 MW maybe). However, as far as wind goes, it's probably not going to be the wind speed data that will come to bite us, but the ability of our grid to handle an intermittent resource such as wind. To keep a steady output from wind, generators with steep ramp rates have to be installed alongside the wind turbines and equipment to forecast wind speeds within the next 5-10min's needs to be installed. I don't think this has been taken into account in the wind projects that are currently being undertaken.
Aug 09, 2012 05:25pm
Article reflects typical Pakistani mentality. Nothing is going to work, Thar coal project is too expensive, we shouldn't even try. What do you say about solar, wind and hydro power ? Are they cheap? What if we find millions of tons of gold underground. Instead of digging we'll be complaining about how hard it is to dig.
Aug 10, 2012 12:48am
coal option isn't lucrative [costs billions and worth millions] the alternate option[hydro power] is more sustainable.
Aug 10, 2012 05:51am
Is this the same Mr. Mubarakmand who backed up the water-kit in the first TV program on Dunya News?
asma tanoli
Aug 11, 2012 09:10pm
Really unfortunate that we like to make ourselves a laughing stock. We discuss this water car on TV and try to prove it to be genuine because Dr AQ Khan and Dr Samar Mubarakmand said so. While these two are well-known for their "knowledge", I am surprised that the current chairman of PCSIR is also of the same category. Most of these guys came up during Zia era and for years they had been trying to get energy from Jins. Khurshid Shah is minister for religious affairs. He should keep his expertise for religious affairs.