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.