Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Conversation With Environmental Activist And Columnist Rafay Alam

Over the last few days, Rafay Alam and I have exchanged a bunch of emails on Pakistan's electricity crisis, water scarcity, development issues, traffic in our cities, urban sprawl and other related items. Rafay is a father, lawyer, environmental activist, teacher, columnist, cyclist, and Lahori. You can follow his Twitter feed here. Without further ado...

Ahsan: Hi Rafay,

Thanks for doing this. I'm sure our readers will appreciate it as much as I do.

Let's get started. Can you tell us briefly a little bit about yourself? In particular, what issue areas you tend to cover in your writings, and what else you do professionally?

Rafay: Ahsan:

I spent some time before answering these questions thinking about why Five Rupees Blog would want to interview me and, though I can't think of any good reason, I must tell you what a shot to the ego it is for me to be interviewed by Five Rupees Blog. The pleasure is all mine. I just hope your readers find the interview interesting.

A little about myself: I'm a 35 year-old Lahore based lawyer. I'm married to my best friend, Aysha Raja, and am father to beautiful four year old Leila Alam.

I've wanted to be a lawyer since I interned with Asma Jehangir in the summer of 1995. That was when Asma was in the forefront of blasphemy, child labour, women's rights and human rights issues, often litigating them herself. I had become a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and was, I suppose, along with the other Friday Times reading urban elite, very much a civil society bachcha.

I've also had a long-lasting enthusiasm for the city I live in. I'm no hard-core Lahori from the Walled City. The Lahore I grew up in, the verdant Gulberg III of falsa orchids before the road-wideners got ahold of control, was entirely suburban. My interests, therefore, are not just in the historical and architectural features of the "Old Lahore", they lie as far the walled-off villages in DHA's Phase VIII.

My interest in Lahore has greatly influenced my interest in cities themselves. As social or economic organisms, cites should be studied, and if for nothing else, because they are civilization themselves. Cities have existed since man inhabited this earth, they are where the great bulk of our human culture and civilization has happened. The dymanics of cities - showcases as they are of the very latest the human civilization has to offer - fascinate me. It's why - and I'm embarrassed this - most of my bedtime reading is usually papers on urban planning or local government budgets.

When the government of Punjab had its brainwave in 1996 to widen Lahore's Canal Road (at the cost over 2,000 trees and irrepreable damage to the city), I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. As one of the lawyers in the Lahore Bachao Tehreek, we knew that it was the provisions of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act, 1997 that gave our rag-tag movement "teeth". Arguing about the pros and cons of a road-development project is one is thing, but getting out of the unambigous legal requirement of conducting an environment impact assessment of the project is altogether different kettle of fish. There was simply no way the Goverment could have sidestepped the legal requirement.

It was about this time I met with one of Pakistan's foremost authorities on environmental law. I had all these questions about why our law required environment impact assessments in the first place, and of course I knew nothing, nothing at all at the time, of environmental law. Over the course of the conversation, the man I went to ask for help and guidance essentially told me: look, I don't know either, we just copied the requirement from the 1983 law.

It struck me at the time that if this so-called guru of our 1997 enviornmental law had pulled a cut-and-paste job with the earlier 1983 law, then no-one really knew what environmental law was all about. It was around about this time, the summer of 2006, that I wrote a column in The News about the Lahore Bachao Tehreek. What was supposed to be a one-off column turned into a weekly column as both Omar R. Qureshi, the op-ed editor at the time, and I thought there was a place in the paper for a column on urban issues and the environment. For better or worse, we thought that a sustained debate on urban and environmental issues would be better than no debate.

The column itself has been an amazing experience, almost like a college education in itself. I write about things that interest me - the city, the environment - and things that I've learnt researching about the things that interest me. Before I started cycling regularly, I did most my column thinking stuck in traffic jams in the city, and it's no coincidence that much of what I write about relates to traffic management. In fact, most of my inspiration for the column comes from my own experience living in Lahore and just trying to contextualize the issues I see it facing. Every now and then, however, I'll step outside the little area I've marked out for myself and will write about development issues or something important that I feel isn't given its share of attention at the op-ed level.

I also lecture at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, where I am a member of the Law & Policy Department. I teach property law, and have for several years. I also teach at the University of Punjab's Department of Architecture, where I lecture on urban development.

Until recently, I hosted two shows on City FM 89. One was music and trivia show (for some reason, I have a remarkable capacity for trivia) that I co-hosted with my wife and the other was a news review show. But since being on air is very much sitting in an empty room talking to yourself - a sure sign of madness - both Aysha and I decided that we'd done enough of it (nearly five years) and I'm enjoying the three extra hours a week I've got to myself.

Ahsan: Holy crap, that's a lot of stuff to do. Seriously, I got tired just reading your email. I needed a nap before typing a response.

You brought up the question of traffic, so let's get right into it. Now, the caveat to everything that follows is that I only know Karachi well, but I can't imagine the other urban areas of the country are strikingly dissimilar.

I'm just going to talk in big picture terms, because frankly I lack the expertise to get into the nitty gritty, which I hope you will for me. But here's what I know: Pakistan has a lot of people, right? And a lot of those people live in cities -- close to 50% now. And a lot of those people in those cities have cars. So we have a lot of cars.

Now, because governments through our history haven't given these issues too much attention, the networks of roads and highways has remained as if we are still in the 1970s, when only the 22-families-types had cars (I exaggerate, but you know what I mean). So we have a lot cars, and not many roads, and so we have a lot of traffic jams. This is ignoring the very big issue of people disobeying traffic laws regularly, thus causing bottlenecks and so on.

Now it seems to me that there's two solutions to this. One, you can have fewer cars on the road, which means more viable public transport options. Two, you can have more roads, so the cars have more space. By and large, we have gone for number two and not number one. The problem with that choice, as I see it, is that it doesn't provide a structural solution to a structural problem -- it only delays the worst of the crisis.

So you built flyovers and highways? Excellent! No, seriously, it's really helped traffic in Karachi. I'm forever thankful to Mustafa Kamal for all that work. But all it's done is ensure that traffic is relatively smoother for five years. By then, there'll be even more cars on the road, and we'll be back to square one.

So my question to you is: why is a clean, efficient, cheap, viable public transport system so difficult to attain in our metropolises when other countries, even poor ones, manage it? I know Mustafa Kamal tried to introduce this network of CNG buses and what not in Karachi, but it never really took off, either because (a) the entrenched interests of the transport mafia were too strong, or (b) his administration was never really serious about it. What's your view of this, both in Karachi and the rest of the country? Why do we have a public transport system so decrepit that only poor and lower middle class people use it?

Rafay: I suppose I should start with a caveat as well: I have no formal training or experience in traffic management or transport. Most of my thinking, as I think I said earlier, happens when I’m stuck in traffic so, by extension, most of the questions I’ve asked myself and tried to answer in my column come from my own experience in traffic.

In order to understand the world of transport - to make it tangible – the subject has to be understood within the larger framework of urbanism and development. All too often, amateur assessments of traffic come from personal experience, and you must take my word for it when I say how counter-intuitive some traffic principles are. I note, for example, the caveat you employed in your reply and your candid support of CDGK Nazim Mustafa Kamal and the overpasses his local government had built in the city.

I think the best way to understand the paradigm is to keep in mind that mobility is a basic human right. The ability to get from A to B, whether it be by foot, cycle, automobile, bus, train, aeroplane, boat, submarine or, say, catapult, must be allowed to every man and woman. Also remember that the automobile and aeroplane are the late entries in the various options people have to exercise their right to mobility. Someone once pointed out to me that, until the advent of the automobile, intersections used to be places where people met. Isn’t it interesting that, within little less than a century, the internal combustion engine has changed a rule as old as human civilization itself.

But the need to exercise mobility – or getting into your car, for example – only arises when there is a distance to be covered between A and B. If one lives far from work, walking may not be an option. If one doesn’t have a cornerside convenience store, then getting daily supplies requires transport. The big question one has to ask themselves is: why would one want to put great distances between A and B?

There are good reasons: A may be a residential neighbourhood and B might be a leather factory. In which case it makes good sense. Most early English town planning principles developed on the belief that a strong rail transport system could support clean and tranquil residential communities afar from the polluted and unsafe cities where there was employment. Over the decades, transport options in cities in the United Kingdom have grown. Residents of London are offered sidewalks, cycles, buses, the Underground, elevators (yes, elevators are form of transport as they ferry thousands up and down high-rise office towers), cars, buses and trains. The multiplicity of transport options, in turn, frees the people who live in or come to visit a great city like London to exercise their mobility, go to work, enjoy an afternoon in the park, go to the theatre, whatever, in fact, they want to do. One of the features of great cities is just this multiplicity of transport options, so the role of transport in how a city functions and feels is too important to ignore.

Which is pretty much what we do in the cities in Pakistan. To begin with, our cities are, by and large, laid out in the rigid town-and –country planning of nearly a century ago. This is the urban planning paradigm that rigidly segregates, for example, commercial and residential uses. I suppose such a rigid distinction was understandable, if not necessary, back in early 20th Century India. The economy of South Asian cities was not as developed as it is now, and the commercial sector was relatively small and not too diverse. There may have been no more than a handful of commercial activities that could have taken place, and the nature of these activities made them unacceptable uses of land in a residential area.

But 21st Century urban Pakistan is nothing like what South Asian cities were a century ago. The vast majority of Pakistan’s industrial and manufacturing sector is located in its urban and peri-urban areas. Also, the nature and scale of commercial activity has grown exponentially. The urban planner of yesteryear had no idea of what to do with a One Potato Two Potato or a Hot Spot. He had no idea of what such a use was, let alone the ability to foresee whether it would be acceptable or not to sell potato chips within a residential community.

Why am I explaining all this? Let’s take Islamabad so that I can explain what I mean. Islamaabad was designed in sectors. Each sector is divided into four sub-sectors. There are small markets in each sub-sector (Kohsar Market, for example) and large markets (Markazs) for each full sector. There is also a dedicated commercial area for the city (Blue Area). The small markets were meant to cater to immediate residential needs, the Markazs for larger shops and things like restaurants and hotels. The Blue Area was meant for offices.

The design of Islamabad, simple as it is on paper, rigidly segregates commercial and residential land use. It forcible keeps offices and schools away from homes. And in doing so, it creates the need for transport.

There’s nothing wrong in creating a need for transport. It’s just that two things need to be kept in mind. The first is that it may not always be necessary to create the need for transport by separating A from B. The second is that having a variety of transport options is crucial whenever A and B are separated.

In Pakistani cities today, everyone is subject to arbitrary land use segregation rules. It’s like a universal constant. But the vast majority of people can’t afford cars, and so that option of transport is not available to them. They are left with their legs, cycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, buses and wagons. That may sound like a lot of options, but consider that there are nowhere near enough buses and wagons, let along user friendly means of accessing them while cycles, motorcycles and rickshaws are dangerous.

Here I’ll point out that this lack of available transport options immediately makes half the population of Pakistan – some 90 million people - immobile. Women and the elderly simply do not have access to the many forms of transport available in Pakistani cities and may remain house-bound or dependent on friends and relatives in order to get around. I feel that this lack of real public transport and transport options allows Pakistani society to sit back and believe things like chardewari and the segregation of women are part of our “culture”. Respect for women is definitely a cultural trait, but I also believe that unfriendly and disrespectful public transport sometimes fools people into thinking that locking women up at home is also perfectly acceptable.

So, why isn’t clean, efficient, cheap and reliable public transport available in Pakistan? The answer, as you correctly pointed out in your question, is that we don’t have a structural solution to the structural problem. So what are these structural problems that we’re trying to find structural solutions for?

The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that our urban development template segregates industrial, commercial and residential use without properly appreciating the purpose for which such segregation was initially created. Urbanists around the world more or less agree that the thing to look for in making a city really great is density, population density. Throughout human civilization, cities have been places people have met and exchanged goods and services as often as they exchanged ideas and interacted with one another. The urbanists of today propose building cities that allow mixtures of commercial, industrial and residential activity in any given area in order to maintain that crucial density of people. What that translates to in transport language is: They are aiming to reduce i) the need for an A and B; and ii) the distance between A and B.

That still doesn’t answer the question of why we don’t have efficient public transport systems in our cities. Believe me I’ve tried to understand this myself – I mean, there are over 8 million people in the city of Lahore, surely someone can understand the need the city has for public transport and provide for it. Surely if the government isn’t keen the private sector can jump in and take advantage of this huge market demand.

The answer, as far as I can make out is that the people responsible for our cities do not understand or appreciate the need for public transport. Why should they? The all drive cars. Unless the decision makers are also stake holders, how can anyone expect there to be a efficient public transport system. Why else would a city government allocate billions of Rupees of money for roads that a minority elite enjoy (and congest) when the money could be better spent on improving the public school system in the city, or investing in a sewage treatment plant. The fact it has is made worse by the fact that the property development of the past decade caters almost entirely to the automobile elite. DHA is designed so that, if one needs a dozen eggs, they need a car.

It’s unfair on many levels. A city as sprawling as Karachi – sprawl made possible, by the way, by rigid land-use segregation, is not navigable by the initiated. You either need a car or a iron mental and physical constitution. It’s not just the obvious inequities. Think also of the fact that, not being immobile also affects job opportunities and, by extention, household incomes. This is a real issue, especially when over half the city of Karachi, for example, lives in slums.

By not understanding the importance of mobility and public transport, our cities are daily violating our human right to mobility.

Ahsan: You know, I never thought about the ability of getting from one to place another as a "human right" per se, but the way you put it makes a lot of sense. My take from your discussion on Islamabad, especially, is that the key was/is to create neighborhoods which are self-containing. So you shouldn't have separate areas for businesses and shops on the one hand and houses and apartments on the other. You should have neighborhoods with businesses and residences. Of course, this is no longer possible, because cities are already on the ground! But if we were starting from scratch...

I still don't buy your explanation of why we don't have public transport. You say we don't have public transport mainly because the people in charge of these decisions -- the political and bureaucratic elite -- wouldn't need it, and so consequently not worried about it. But the elite in India doesn't need public transport either, and Bombay's trains, while not at Singapore or Tokyo's level, afford more opportunities for transport than Karachi's. And India is just one example; there's many countries out there where the elite live in a different world, but the non-elite still have public transport.

Anyway, let's move on to something else that you may well consider a human right: the right to have a fan on when it's hot, and a light on when it's dark.

A couple of months ago, as the energy crisis really began to grab headlines, I found that I knew a lot about the political side of things, but very little on the technical side of things. Our media, to the extent that I am aware of it, has done a pathetic job of educating Pakistanis on why we have an energy crisis. I don't mean the immediate causes, such as electricity theft and people not paying bills and the circle of debt between various power companies and so on. I mean deep, structural, scientific causes. So I began to look around for some literature, and found very, very little (though I did find some).

To that end, can you tell me why we have an energy crisis? From my basically-uninformed perspective, we (a) have never adequately developed renewable sources of energy, even though wind and solar would do well in Pakistan, (b) never planned for the fact that our population and economy will, you know, grow, and (c) not devoted enough energy, pardon the pun, to thinking about nuclear energy for things other than weaponizaton. How do you see this issue?

Rafay: Ahsan:

I don’t think having electricity is a human right. The right to have a working fan is different, say, from the right to be able to freely move around, express your opinion, organize yourself politically and, especially, live a healthy life.

Electricity is, without doubt, crucially important to the development of a country. There are studies which link GDP to electrification. Having electricity for a light, for example, can help people study in the dark or carry out a cottage industry after a long day in the field. But it is not something that is provided to people by the State for free. Electricity has to be paid for; it is very much a commodity. That said, electricity is like a catalyst for development. But I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the right to electricity is a human right.

So, why do we not have electricity? That’s a fairly basic question. But I’d like to get right into it before I can explain the answer: If you think about it, the mobile phone has been quite a phenomenon in Pakistan. From two decades ago, when there were none, to now the rise of the use of the mobile phone seems unstoppable. In today’s Pakistan, a mobile phone and a connection are cheap enough to within the reach of just about everyone. Within twenty years, there has been a roll-out of a vast infrastructure that is, at the same time, providing a cheap service to everyone.

In contrast, the massive infrastructure in place to provide electricity to people in Pakistan is failing. It costs less than a Rupee to make a mobile phone call, but nearly ten Rupees to consume a unit of electricity.

Often, during loadshedding, I am amused at the thought of millions of people without electricity talking on their mobile phones. The imagery here is relevant. The State has rolled out expensive infrastructure for both these services, but only one infrastructure seems to be working.

The electricity grid in Pakistan was designed in the fifties and sixties. It belongs to a world where electricity was produced only by large dams. It envisages a world where large cities consume most of the electricity of the country (and they do) and for whom only large power generation solutions will work.

But, in today’s world, with today’s problems, do you think a fifty year old solution is still relevant? We don’t have electricity in Pakistan because the thinking behind our electricity infrastructure belongs to a world that’s long gone. To give you an example of how far grid technology has progressed, there are countries in northern Europe that are experimenting with “smart grids”. With the common use of solar energy in these countries, some structures actually produce a surplus of electricity. The “smart grids” allow these consumers to sell electricity back to the electricity company.

The vast majority of Pakistan’s commercial and industrial activity takes place in its urban areas. With our high levels of urbanization, domestic consumption of electricity is also very high. If you can visualize it, almost all of our electricity is consumed in the relatively small footprint our cities make in the overall area of the country. Another factor to consider is population growth. The failure of population stabilization policies means that, in the next two to three decades, the population of Pakistan will approach the 300 million mark, and over 50 percent of the population will live in cities. In other words, the cities are expected to double in size within the next decade or so. Get ready for it.

Pakistan has an installed capacity of slightly over 20,000MW of electricity. We actually produce far less than this installed capacity (due to the mystifyingly complex issue of “circular debt”) and, of this, nearly a quarter is lost due to the theft and inefficiencies in the transmission and distribution system. From this miserable situation, we are supposed to cater to the requirements of nearly 300 million people – half of whom will live and consume energy in cities – within the next two decades.

And that is why, if we remain on our present course, we will not have electricity and we will continue not to have electricity in the future.

Ahsan: So what's the alternative to this "present course"? If gray European countries can have a surplus of solar electricity, why can't sunny Pakistan? If European countries (and some American states) can have population densities that rival Karachi and Lahore, and yet not have a "population problem" per se, then why is it such a problem for us? Put differently, why is the n+1th person in Pakistan a "problem" but the n+1th person in the US or UK a unit of power (the IR world is fairly unanimous that the one thing that will keep the U.S. in a stronger position than Western Europe, Japan and Russia is their dying populations)?

Actually, that's a bunch of questions, so let me be more direct: if you were the adviser to our leadership on energy issues, and you had 100 units of money to spend, how would you divide that money amongst (a) dams, (b) newer and "smarter" grids, (c) nuclear energy, (d) solar and wind energy, (e) conservation efforts, and (f) something I may have left off the table? And can you explain why you would spend it in the way you do?

Rafay: Ahsan:

You have to break the electricity crisis into parts to understand it. One part is understanding our current installed capacity (about 20,000MW give or take) which comprises of a mix of hydroelectric, oil, gas, nuclear and renewable energy sources. Our production of electricity is somewhere in the region of 13,000MW (I’m not sure, so don’t quote me, so to speak). We don’t produce near to installed capacity because i) hydroelectricity depends on river flow, which increases and decreased through the year; and ii) of the circular debt issue.

Of the electricity actually produced, nearly between a fifth to a quarter is lost – simple lost – because of inefficiencies and theft in the transmission and distribution network.

If we sorted out the circular debt issue, improved the efficiency of the grid system and, generally, conserved energy, our current installed capacity is enough to meet our short term needs.

But we don’t just need a short term solution. We need a long term solution that gives Pakistan the ability to tap into its development potential. In the next twenty years, as our cities continue to grow, every other Pakistani will live in an urban area (or at least earn his livelihood through non-agricultural means). This is going to place a huge stress on housing as well as electricity for commercial and industrial purposes. Keep in mind that structures and buildings are where the majority of electricity is consumed. There are other challenges as well, but since we’re talking about electricity, I’ll try to keep the discussion focused on electricity.

The challenge of the future is to think of a roadmap that takes Pakistan’s energy resources from where they are today and provides for 300 million Pakistani in the next three decades. I know plenty of people believe that the coal reserves in Thar are the answer. But it’s not that simple.

Any country, be it the United States or Pakistan, has to rely on a mix of energy resources. That way, a single energy resource doesn’t become the only thing keeping the country going. Don’t put your eggs in one basket.

If I were to think of things this way, I’d organize my energy mix so that the electricity from hydroelectric resources also bolstered the country’s water resources (we haven’t raised our water storage capacity since Tarbela). I’d make sure we relied less heavily on oil for electricity. In that way, I’d reduce the country’s huge oil import bill that just adds to air pollution and environmental degradation (and dependence on places like Saudi Arabia). I’d try and make sure our gas resources remained robust (our gas resources are depleting). I’d also try and increase solar and wind energy production. And I’d make sure that I don’t rely too much on the Thar coal unless and until someone finds the least environmentally damaging way coal can be used to generate electricity (China, which relies heavily on coal, has serious air pollution issues).

Almost all of Pakistan is good for solar electricity most of the year. There are vast parts of Sindh and Baluchistan that are perfect for the production of wind energy. But there are problems with these. Solar won’t work all year round and, in some areas, not all day long. The wind resources are too far from the consumers and so infrastructure costs to get the electricity to the grid can be high.

But these are problems if you look at renewable resources as the only resources. Renewables make perfect sense in Pakistan, but you’ve got to combine them with out-of-the-box thinking on how to employ them with the rest of the energy mix. You’ve also got to start thinking about changing the existing grid system.

Pakistan’s existing grid system was laid out in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s old and archaic and needs to be replaced. There’s simply no point in investing billions of dollars in new electricity production when the grid system it flows through is inefficient. I’d also start thinking about changing the grid system.

But when we start talking about replacing grid systems, we are getting into “far out” territory. But that’s fine. It’s only when you’re in outside-the-box land that you can see clearly.

If I had the chance to work on the electricity problems, I’d also look into how we run our cities. Cities are were all the buildings – those energy guzzling buildings – are located. It’s these buildings that consume electricity for industrial and commercial purposes and which house all of us T.V. watching, air conditioner enjoying, microwave food eating urbanites that have to be improved and made more energy efficient. Which brings us to the second part of understanding the electricity crisis.

Conservation and energy efficiency has to mean more than using ACs at 27 Celsius or not using them till 11am. These measures are, at best, crowd pleasing theatrics. Real energy efficiency means changing the way we make buildings and – here I’m really into “far-out” land – the way we design our cities.

Smaller cities require smaller sources of electricity to run them. One of the reasons we need large dams for our energy crisis is because only dams produce the amounts of electricity that our cities consume. But if we could reduce the size of our cities, we could actually do away with the need for having large dams as energy sources. Instead, we could rely on a mix of renewable solar, micro-hydel and wind resources to provide electricity to our cities.

I’m sure you’re going to ask me what I’m talking about. Our cities are already bursting at the seams and the rural to urban migration statistics paint a picture of relentless increases in their populations. How on earth can they be made smaller? It’s tough enough keeping them at the size they are at already.

All that rings perfectly true, but I am a great believer in human beings and the strength of their ingenuity. I’ve been influenced by the thinking of Manuel Castells here. He suggests that technology can be driven by ideology as much as it is by necessity. I’ve written about this before, but in short, the idea runs like this: There needs to be a continuous political ideology that drives technology and innovation – even in things as seemingly unrelated as urban planning – towards a desired goal. Let our goal be smaller cities. Why? Because smaller cities are more sustainable, energy efficient and sustainable than the large cities that we have today. How will we do it? I have no idea. But that doesn’t mean anything. Imagine if someone had suggested to the fathers of the ENIAC computer that, within half a century, their clunky hundred foot metal and pipe monster would fit into the palm of someone’s hand. They would have laughed. But look at where the continuous political ideology of personal freedom took the ENIAC technology. As Castells points out, if Soviet Russia had the same technology as IBM did building ENIAC, they would probably not have come up with the I-phone. Sure they would have employed the technology for some means – probably to further whatever sustained political ideology characterizes their system, but they would not have come up with the I-phone.

So, like I said, part of the solution to the energy crisis is to replace the energy grid and to change the entire damn paradigm we have of urban planning and development.

Ahsan: Last question on electricity, I promise. What are your thoughts on the rental power plants controversy?

Rafay: Ahsan:

There are two options open to any person who has put on a bit of weight. They can either exercise or they can go to their tailor to have their trousers taken out by two inches. The latter option does nothing about the weight gain. At best, it is a temporary solution.

If Pakistan’s energy woes could be likened to the need to lose weight, then rental power plants would be like getting your trousers taken out. But it doesn’t solve the problem of the energy crisis.

The acute shortage of energy is also an opportunity for businessmen to strike a favourable deal with government. Government will be suffering the pressure of a restless public and might be convinced to make a temporary decision that have catastrophic long-term results. The rental power IPP are an example of how persuasive business interests can be.

I won’t get into the alleged financial misdealings in the run up to the stalled rental power plant negotiations, but look at it this way: IPPs running on oil pass the cost of the oil onto the consumer (subsidized, of course, by government). Rental power plants would have done the same thing, except that they would have also passed the rental costs on as well. Although a country like Pakistan needs electricity, getting it at over Rs. 14 a unit is extortion.

Meanwhile, I often wonder what my trouser tailor analogy means in a country where men don’t usually have belts. In the land of the shalwar, the azarban can simply be tied looser.

Ahsan: If you're in Pakistan, you actually do neither. You just have your belly protrude over your belt at basically a right angle. I think there's some nice symbolism there: in our country, you don't do anything about problems. You just ignore them.

Let's move on to water. Having read your columns on the subject, I think I have a fair handle on your thinking on this issue. Amongst other things, you believe (a) that Pakistani cities (especially the elite in said cities) are way too wasteful with water (this is the "watering lawns with drinking water" point you've repeatedly made); (b) that India, despite the media hype to the contrary, actually has very little to do with Pakistan's water crisis; and(c) that our water crisis will only get worse in the future. Please correct me if I've mischaracterized your position on any of this.

As I understand it, Pakistan has two main sources of fresh water: glacial melt, and rainfall. On the latter point, as we've alluded to earlier, more dams would make sense. But politically, given historic tensions amongst the provinces, dams are always troublesome (as the Kalabagh issue showed us). Leaving that aside, however, are there good scientific or technical reasons to forgo more dams? And can you clarify the big dams vs. small dams problem, the one Arundhati Roy is always on about?

And on the glacial melt, shouldn't global warming conceivably benefit Pakistan's water supply? This is obviously my simplistic thinking on the issue, but if glaciers are melting at a faster rate, and Pakistan gets its water from glacial melt, then climate change could actually work out for the better here, no? (By the way, I'm 100% sure I'm wrong on this, but I don't know why, which is why I'm asking you).

Rafay: Ahsan:

Quite aside from the fact that you have not, in any way, “mischaracterized” anything, I have to say that your summary of my thoughts on water is most flattering.

First: The big dam versus little dam debate. I don’t really know the ins and outs of this one, but I do know is that, recently, the World Bank – which was, until then, one of the main financers of large dam projects around the world – undertook a review of their practices regarding dams and found, essentially, that while dams do the things they are designed to (like provide water storage capacity or produce electricity) their benefits are not equitably shared. Big dams displace tens if not hundreds of thousands of families and their communities and the economic effects of dams often don’t filter down to the very people who are made homeless for them. Like I mentioned in my earlier answer, one of the reasons we need big dams is because they are the only feasible way to power our energy inefficient cities. Looked at this from another angle and basically what it means is that the electricity (and the development it supports) supplied to Islamabad by, say, Mangla Dam is disproportionately used by Islamabadis than by the people who live near Mangla Dam.

Anyway, the World Bank has reviewed its policy on building large dams on the basis of the report (and now spends most of its money on road development projects in developing countries). Of course, this is a controversial decision, because the energy provided by large dams is the just the thing small and growing economies claim they need to develop and maintain production and competitiveness in today’s world.

The other things dams do is store water for irrigation. The storage areas created by dams can be used to channel water using a canal irrigation network to faraway farmlands. Under the Indus Water Treaty, when Pakistan got three western rivers and India the three eastern rivers of the Indus Water Basin, it was agreed that Pakistan would built three dams and a vast irrigation network to make up for the loss of water from the eastern rivers. Thus Mangla, Tarbela and Kalabagh were planned. For whatever reason the Kalabagh dam has not been constructed and so the

Now, I think I’ve read somewhere that Pakistan has just about 20 days of storage capacity for irrigation. We need to increase this in order to ensure food security in an uncertain future made more complicated by climate change. As our water resources deplete, keeping fertile and arable land productive is going to be a challenge.

One thing you have to keep in mind is that our falling water resource has to do with our population increase and less with any “depletion” of water. If your water resource is X and population Y, then the per capita resource is X/Y. Double the population and you halve the per capita water resource. As they say, there’s lies, damn lies and then there’s statistics.

To answer the question you asked: Yes, climate change is expected to affect our water resources. According to the science on climate change, the Himalayan glaciers they were expecting would melt are melting faster than they thought (Note: this science appears to be a bit clouded about what’s happening with glacial melt, if any, above an altitude of 5,000 meters). If this is so, there will be increased glacial melt in the near future followed by a depletion once the glaciers run out.

You have to keep in mind, however, that glacier water is not crystal clean drinking water. It carries silt. Lots and lots of silt. And that increased silting will have an effect and reduce the storage capacity of our existing reservoirs Tarbela and Mangla (and will also reduce the amount of water our rivers carry as they approach the Indus Delta in Sindh). If we have just about three weeks of water storage capacity now, it’s going to be closer to two weeks unless additional water storage reservoirs are built. And, here I think this is what people like Arundhati Roy are saying, is where the issue of the use of conservation and small storage reservoirs comes in. But I don’t know much about the big dam small/dam debate and won’t speak on this any more or fear of being wrong.

Nearly half of the river and canal water in Pakistan is lost because of seepage and theft (Note: not that this seepage and theft is bad per se, as this water is inevitably used for further irrigation or domestic purposes). This means that the lower riparian’s rights to receive water are being affected. Meanwhile, there are unacceptably widespread use of inefficient irrigation practices that waste water. Then there is the increadible subsidy given to this precious resource (in Punjab’s it costs Rs. 120 to flood-irrigate an acre of land – sugar is about Rs. 60 a kilo by comparison and you can park your car in an urban centre all day of merely Rs. 10).

If we had the vision and foresight to implement sustainable farming practices, the Chairman of WAPDA told me himself there is almost three times the water in this country to provide food for 200 million people.

The Ministry of Environment carried out a study of how Pakistan would be affected by climate change. Changes in temperatures and water shortages are expected to reduce crop productivity by as much as 30 percent. This will mean a collapse of the agricultural economy (which employs nearly half the workforce and accounts for nearly 60 percent of export). Increase in water contamination will have disastrous effects on the country’s health (as it is, nearly a third of patients admitted in our hospitals are there because of water-related ailments). Both these factors will contribute to rural to urban migration, putting a stress on housing and sanitation as well as things are food productivity. There will be knock-down food security issues on account of these things (and we’ve already demonstrated that we have the characteristic trait of famine-stricken countries of not being able to supply food to people who need it (think atta and, of all things, sugar). So no, there is simple no way that climate change works to Pakistan’s advantage. In fact, despite its relatively small global CO2 footprint, Pakistan is expected be one of countries most severely affected by climate change.

Ahsan: The other day Mohsin Hamid has this op-ed in Dawn which I blogged about. If I were to synopsize his piece, his basic argument would be that the Pakistani state doesn't have enough money to do what it needs to do. It was essentially an argument for a higher tax-to-GDP ratio.

Leaving the merits of his argument aside, I think there are three possible answers to the question of why Pakistan is not where it needs to be, developmentally speaking. The first is the aforementioned Hamid argument, which is that we have don't have enough money. Personally, I find that hard to believe. A quick google search (hardly the most robust thing methodologically, but bear with me) tells me that Pakistan collected Rs.1 trillion in taxes in 2009, which is hardly pocket change. My view is that (a) it's spent in the wrong places (F-16s and foreign trips rather than schools), and (b) when it is spent in the right places, is spent badly (more as patronage than anything else).

But there are two other logics. The first would be that our political system is screwed up beyond repair, that our leaders have no rational incentives to deliver to the public, and consequently they are safely ensconced in the knowledge that they don't actually have to do anything. We can call this the "apathy" logic.

Finally, it could simply be the case that our leaders don't have technocratic experts such as yourself, who are able to break down complicated and deathly important issues into everyday language. For this argument, it's not that they don't want to do good, it's that they can't, because they don't know how, and moreover, there are no experts around to help them.

So my last question to you would be: which of these logics do you think is most crucial to understanding our development issues, on things like water and energy and physical space? Keep in mind that proposed "solutions" to these problems differ considerably. If it's the first, then we have to get more money. If it's the third, then we have to get people like you a fancy suit and make you take the CSS exam. But if it's the second, then I don't know what the solution is, because political systems tend to be entrenched, and when they do change, change slowly.

So, to reiterate, which is it: a money problem, an apathy problem, or a lack-of-knowledge problem?

Rafay: Ahsan:

You appear to ask me “how can we fix Pakistan” and give me three possible answers. One, throw money at the problem. Two, empower the political leadership, and three, unleash the technocrat.

Well, let me eliminate some of the options. I don’t think throwing money at the problem will solve it. It never solves anything (i it did, would we have beggars on the streets?). If I could have a second to respond to the “let’s pay tax” solution, I’d like to point out that most Pakistanis are not just poor, a good third of them live below the poverty line. And I’m sorry, but getting the few remaining Pakistanis to pay income tax is just not going to be the solution.

As things stand, Pakistan earns most of its money through customs and import duties. The “common man” pays also pays a whole host of taxes, like the Sales Tax (soon to be replaced by the notification-proof VAT) and exorbitantly high taxes on electricity and petrol consumption. Collecting income tax will only squeeze the middle class further (it’s not going to get anything from the poor at all). This idea that, somehow, income tax is the solution is a misnomer. In fact, I’m beginning to think that this get-the-tax attitude has less to do with raising revenue and more to do with a sophisticated against-the-man stance government often like to take. In fact, given the problems in Punjab (we’ve nearly run out of money and then there’s the militarism and lack of electricity), I’m kind of amused to see that the Chief Minister of the Punjab has ordered that steps be taken to recover luxury tax from the owners of 1.8cc-engine cars and above. In many ways, this “going for the rich” posturing (just like the rather easy “politicians don’t pay taxes” headline) is kind of the government giving signals that it’s against The Man.

Next, I don’t think unleashing the technocrat is the right answer either. For one, there are already too many technocrats – and I mean, good, intelligent and hardworking men and women – in and around government already. If the technocrat had the solutions, this would be a different country. Second, a government of technocrats is deeply un-democratic. I, for one, am a huge admirer of anyone who has the courage (and balls) to stand for election. Someone once told me that it would be foolish for anyone to ever disregard a politician’s priorities. I don’t know how far that goes in a country like Pakistani – where blood lines and biradari-ism are prevalent – but what I’m saying is that politicians, at the end of the day, are the ones who fought to represent the people. For that alone their views, opinions and priorities should not be disregarded. On the other hand, someone with a college degree from the US and a year or two’s experience working in an air-conditioned office is not suitable for giving advice on how this this Islamic Republic should be run.

I’m not saying technocrats are bad and we should get rid of them. That isn’t true and politicians often need support on technical issues. I’m saying that it won’t be right for a democracy to rely on the prejudices of the unelected. If the CDA in Islamabad, for example, has elected representatives, do you think that it’s priority (as it is right now) would be to “elimate” beggars from streets? No, if the CDA has elected leadership, it would be thinking of ways to improve the quality of life of the poor in Islamabad (was ever a city designed to be more unfriendly to its own people, especially the ones that can’t afford a car?).

I now realize that, by saying two of the three choices you set out for me are no-goes, I have hemmed myself into an answer. Like you, I don’t know exactly how to respond to the question because, as noted, political systems are entrenched. So, is there a way out of the “apathy problem”?

Um, yes.

Like you said, political systems are entrenched. And it’s not just ours, it the same everywhere. Why else would George W. Bush get elected? Why else would Jemima Goldsmith’s brother stand for election (he won his seat, incidentally, on a Conservative ticket)? Why else would there be political dynasties in Bangladesh, Thailand or any other of a host of countries?

But if political systems are entrenched, I believe we need to stand back and examine the structure of the system. It’s like being Neo in The Matrix. Only when we can properly understand how the system works can we make the system work for us and, more importantly, make it work for us in a less unjust and more sustainably way. How is that done? Well, you’ve hit the nail on the head by describing the problem as “apathy”. In order to solve the apathy problem, you need to stop being apathetic.

Political systems only work when the people they are designed for participate in them. Our political system is bloody well impossible to understand, and I don’t think anyone amongst us has the ability to change, in one or two generations, something that’s been entrenched for decades, if not centuries. But that shouldn’t stop people from wanting to participate in it.

I love to quote the example of the boys and girls of Zimmedar Shehr. Here’s a bunch of people who just got sick and tired of how much trash and litter was left about in commercial areas. But they didn’t sit around complaining about the inaction of government. They didn’t try and set up and NGO that would get funds and execute a program to manage solid waste in urban areas. They simply got gloves, a couple of bags and started cleaning up the trash themselves.

That’s what I call interacting and participating in the system: literally getting your hands dirty with the issue(s) you are passionate about. I mean, it’s been sixty years since this country was founded and government has done little or nothing (apart from provide to minority elite). It’s foolish for anyone to even expect it to change. Unless, that it, they become part of the change.

The Zimmedar Shehri phenomenon has spread to over eight cities. In Lahore, they have already been approached by the Solid Waste Management Department and been given an office in Town Hall. They’ve executed an agreement with the Chief Minister and are now poster children for a new Pepsi campaign. Their involvement, in little over a year, has not only meant cleaner commercial areas in parts of Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and Faislabad. They are also beginning to understand how the political process (albeit the political process of a limited section of urban governance) works. But theirs is an example of how far a little bit of participation in the political process can take you.

Ahsan: On that (slightly) hopeful note, let me thank you for your time, Rafay. This has been enlightening, and I hope our readers got as much out of it as I did.

As mentioned above, you can follow Rafay on Twitter here.

For those interested, I have had such email conversations before.

Click here for my conversation with two South Asia scholars in the American academy, Vipin Narang of Harvard/MIT and Paul Staniland of MIT/University of Chicago.

Click here for my conversation with Cricinfo Pakistan editor Osman Samiuddin.

Click here for my conversation with Dawn editorial writer and op-ed columnist Cyril Almeida.

Click here for the one with political economist and The News columnist Mosharraf Zaidi.

Click here for one with a Wall Streeter in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Click here for one with an Indian foreign affairs blogger after the Mumbai attacks of 2008.


Muhammad Shahid said...

Ahsan, like you, most people get fascinated by solar energy. Solar is not a viable option as of today. The biggest PV plant is 60MW and Solar troughs (Parabolic concentration) is relying on new research into storing heat in molten salt. Solar is extremely expensive, small scale and unrealizable for a developing world.

As for wind power, we have installed nearly a 100MW of it but unlike India we do not have a local company of global standards (Suzlon). A local manufacturing sector most definitely have allowed them to install wind generation capacity beyond our imagination.

Solar and Wind are niche sources for us as of now, nuclear is the only way forward.

Nuclear produces electricity at the lowest cost in the long run. The need is for indigenous plants. China is way far behind other nuclear power in power plant technology. Korea, Belgium and France rely on nuclear power for their needs. South Korea has become self reliant in reactor technology and are the best bidders in the Turkish tender as of now.

Relying on China to give us two paltry 350MW PPs at Chashma shows that China isn't the solution. Moreover, we are still focused on producing more plutonium and more warheads. With the completion of Khushab-II, we are only accelerating the production of plutonium even when we have enough warheads to screw South Asia many times over.

The negligence towards electricity production from Nuclear is a major catastrophe. We need to start focusing towards nuclear power now.

Ahsan said...

Muhammad Shahid: Thanks for your comment. You clearly know more about this stuff than I do; I was coming at this from a decidedly non-expert point of view. Indeed, one of the main reasons I wanted to talk to Rafay was learn more about these deathly important issues.

I share your urgency on nuclear power; I think it's the best way for our country. But am I right in saying the start-up costs for nuclear power are prohibitive, or at least much higher than the renewable sources like wind+solar?

ArsalanKH said...

Such an informative conversation and enlighted me with so many things and myths too. Thanks a lot

Muhammad Shahid said...

The startup costs are indeed higher but it does pay off itself extremely well in the long run. Waste processing needs to be improved at the same time (the residents of Baghalchur went into litigation with PAEC over disposal of nuclear waste in open dump sites).

This might be a simplistic and generalized graph, but this can give you the picture:-

Currently, there are 4 more wind power plants being set up in Sind, varying b/w 25 and 50MW. Solar is being used to electrify far flung villages which aren't on the grid (and will not be on the grid for the next 5 yrs) under a parliamentary recommendation programme. Details are available in the Question section on the NA website.

Wind is a much, much more viable source of energy. The US has >35,000 MW installed capacity, Germany has >25,000 MW and our neighbour has 11,000MW of installed capacity.

Solar appeals to the naive as they view it as a permanent and cheap solution. As I mentioned earlier, PV is extremely expensive and a shortscale solution. Solar troughs which concentrate energy on a tall tower or tubes on focal points of individual mirrors use heat generated to run steam turbines. Spain, the leader in the trough technology, has achieved around 3-5 hours of steam storage in their most efficient towers. Obviously this cannot be a permanent solution. Molten salt stores heat for a longer period but if their is a glitch in the process and salt solidifies, it expands and there's an explosion of the storage tanks/tubes.

Nuclear is the only way forward for us.

wasay said...

Why does (ADB, WB, IMF etc) encourage leaders to build such expensive and unnecessary flyovers and underpasses? Why don't these organizations stop giving money and demand our leaders to invest in public transportation? I am sure the 'experts' at World Bank have now probably learned that such investments are not the most profitable or feasible.

Also one would think that having more buses, pedestrian friendly cities would get leaders more votes. For example if Shahbaz Sharif spent $40m to get 100 extra buses on the streets of Lahore than widen the Canal Road, won’t he become more popular?

Ahsan said...

Wasay: Well I think local politics really matters here. Even if foreign agencies "force" our leaders to institute good public transport, they won't be able to unless the forces align domestically. Think about how Mustafa Kamal was stopped by the transport mafia in KHI from the CNG buses thing. It's not like he didn't want to, or didn't think it was a good idea. It was just that he couldn't.

Faiza said...

Really liked this post Ahsan. Maybe people aren't commenting coz there's not much to argue about.

Ahsan said...

Haha thanks Faiza. But actually people not commenting didn't/doesn't really bother me. The readership stats I have clearly showed people weren't even reading it, much less commenting on it, which is why I highlighted it again. But glad you found it useful.

wasay said...

That still doesn't answer the question why they will fund projects they know are bad for the country. Why not simply refuse to give money?

anyone interested in urban planning should watch this.

MallRoadIcedTea said...

Wasay: If you think the IMF and World Bank affect decisions about cities, you're right. Check out Arif Hasan's excellent overview of the World Class Cities Concept at

Muhammad Shahid said...

Besides IFIs promoting more extensive intracity road transportation networks, they are promoted for it appeases the needs of the upwardly mobile urban middle class which makes the loudest of noises yet never participates in the political process.

Over the past decade people have been made to think that overpasses and wider roads are symbols of "development". The problem is mental comprehension and understand of "development" among the masses then. Why spend money on a solid waste management project when you can build an overpass and receive praise from the people? Here enhanced local reporting comes to play, which is absent from our media.

anam said...

Informative and Eye-opening. It also has to be stressed that our lifestyles (i.e the upper and upper-middle classes) are EXTREMELY energy/water/gas inefficient not to speak of our pollution output and carbon footprints. This is also a deeply entrenched problem and our consumption patterns, our energy habits have to change. its ironic that the so-called educated classes are the most uneducated and the biggest culprits with regards to this issue.
Small, self-sustained cities which are well-integrated and green. So excitingly futuristic. The geek in me wants to live in such a place.

We'll have to follow a different model for reforming huge cities like Lahore and Karachi.

Madihah said...

Great post Ahsan! So educational to read about the real underlying issues in Pakistan as opposed to the nitty gritty, futile political rants always readily available.

takhalus said...

If i remember right K-P province has some 20,000 MW of untapped hydel power in the form of small dams..with regard to alternative power, why can't the government establish a joint manufacturer to produce solar and wind projects? also why not deregulate the power market more and let companies compete to improve production and distrbution rather than have monopolies like KESC?