March 15, 2023
Feature image shows the M2 Peshawar – Lahore motorway traversing the 800 metre high Salt Range near the Jhelum river.
Pakistan is never a boring place to visit. Some friends ask, “are you going to be safe?” others don’t ask directly. Most reports reaching people outside tell of terrorist threats, riots or politically inspired assassinations. For me, the main threats are microbiological terrorists: bacteria and viruses in water or food.
We are drawn here for family, stunning scenery and friendly people. Yet there is much more to draw your attention here because Pakistan is in turmoil – political and economic, social and even environmental.
Pakistan is just one of many countries with fragile economies that have cracked and may break from the consequences of US inflation and the Ukraine conflict.
For me, Pakistan is the starting point of my research on engineers. So many migrate and succeed in Australia, North America and Europe. Yet, in their home country, they struggle to deliver goods and services we take for granted in high-income countries, like water and sanitation, the most fundamental engineered services. Why? That’s a question that has preoccupied me for twenty years.
Safe drinking water costs far more than in Australia, the driest continent. It has to be carried because the pipes that deliver water for an hour or two now and again are irretrievably contaminated with sewage that seeps in through cracks and half-repaired joints. Cities like Lahore no longer have working sewerage treatment plants. Missing or broken sewer manhole covers pockmark terrain between roads and buildings. One steps precariously between live cables emerging from the dust and coiling to knee height from pylons that resemble tropical creepers more than electricity poles. Despite the best efforts from dedicated engineers and technicians, the engineered urban environment is crumbling.
Now, as I write, the weather is gorgeous. Spring days bring refreshing nights and balmy daytime sunshine with temperatures in the mid-twenties. Electricity, at least in cities, is on 24/7 because residential demand is minimal and power-hungry factories have closed down, waiting for essential supplies held at Karachi docks because the State Bank has insufficient dollars for importers to open their letters of credit. The rupee plunged in value ever further day by day. One week it collapsed from 226 to 276 to the US dollar, then bounced back and ended up at 283 by the time we left. Shehbaz Sharif, the prime minister, takes orders from his elder brother relaxing in London, and the finance minister seems to rely more on religious invocations than economists for advice. Imran Khan, whom they deposed last year, issues daily rants but offers few clues on how his team would fix the economic mess.
It seems that everyone blames politicians for Pakistan’s problems, labelling them as corrupt, self-serving liars, thieves (“Chor, chor, chor!). Pakistan is also awash with development economists only too ready to offer prescriptions that have hardly moved the dial in 50 years of trying.
Michael Krugman’s famous 1990 dictum “productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.” There are four ways to do that:
i) Improve education to lift skill levels – that needs finance, human resources (teachers) and water, food, shelter and clothing for students while they are being educated;
ii) Improve organizations, pay and working conditions to improve worker motivation – that needs finance and human resources, just as education does;
iii) Improve health, well-being, to improve physical, emotional and mental capacity for work; and
iii) Improve tools and mechanization – that needs action by engineers. Since prehistory, engineers have delivered artefacts that enable people to do more with less time, effort, material resources, energy, health risks, environmental disturbances and uncertainty, in other words enabling other people to be more productive.
I see solutions lying in the hands of engineers, but they need new knowledge and insights to take action. The electricity network needs a completely fresh approach (part 1, part 2). Most engineers in Pakistan don’t yet see themselves as having agency, the freedom to take action, but maybe we can change that a little…
There’s a complex set of human socio-cultural issues here, with a measure of fallacies, myths, and knowledge gaps. Over the next few posts I will try and explain what I have learned over 20 years, and I would love your feedback to see if it makes sense to you.
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