Faizan Ahmad spent the summer of 2007 working to bring solar-powered electricity and solar-powered water purification to villagers in the Thar Desert of Pakistan. The 21-year-old Karachi native is studying Physics and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Dayton, and worked in Pakistan through Engineers in Technical Humanitarian Opportunities of Service-learning (ETHOS), a program of the U. of Dayton School of Engineering.
Faizan had originally been assigned an ETHOS internship in Nicaragua, but that plan fell through late in the process due to visa difficulties.
When did your Nicaragua plans fall through?
I was supposed to leave for Nicaragua on May 6. Then since we still didn’t have clearance, we delayed it to May 13. Finally, on May 10 we faced the fact it just wasn’t going to happen. I was so discouraged. I had spent the whole semester preparing for the Nicaragua internship. I’d applied for my visa two months ahead of time. I’d taken a semester-long course to prepare for Nicaragua, covering technical, cultural, and linguistic aspects of the internship. And I had no Plan B.
How did the idea of going to Pakistan come about?
We were scrambling to try to quickly create a similar internship somewhere in the United States. I was having my usual weekend phone conversation with my parents in Karachi and talking about what we were looking to do. My father is an electrical engineer, and he mentioned offhand that opportunities like this could also exist in Pakistan. Through some of his contacts, we got in touch with the Alternative Energy Development Board (AEDB) in Pakistan and we quickly set up the internship and got it approved and funded by ETHOS, which had never before done work in Asia.
And even though Pakistan is my home country, it turns out that I did not miss out on the opportunity for cultural exchange. I’m from Karachi, one of the biggest cities in the world, with 15 million people. But my work was in the Thar Desert, what you might know as Rajasthan, about seven hours from home, complete with camels and sand dunes and 125-degree heat. I lived in a small hut with no running water, and I was among people who spoke a different language than I did.
How did you communicate with the villagers?
The national language of Pakistan, Urdu, is my first language, and is the villagers’ third language. Their first language is their village language, Dhatki, and their second language is the provincial language, Sindhi. But Sindhi shares a lot of vocabulary with Urdu, so we could get by with those two languages. Plus other people working on the project who spoke both Urdu and Sindhi could help.
What’s your impression of the people of the Thar Desert?
I was struck by their self-sufficiency and their hospitality. Both of these were notable because of the tremendous lack of resources in the desert. For example, the typical woman spends most of each day walking as far as 10 kilometers one-way, with an earthen vessel on her head, to fill it up with water, and carry it back on her head. Yet you could not visit a house without being offered water or other refreshments.
What’s a typical house like?
The houses are mud huts with straw roofs. The inside is quite bare. In front of every house will be a few goats for milk and maybe a camel.
Why is alternative energy especially important and/or feasible in Pakistan?
Well, the world is already in an energy crisis, and Pakistan is no different. Karachi is a huge industrialized city, and every summer Karachi experiences load-shedding, whereby, if there is not enough electricity to meet demand, the city shuts off the electricity to conserve it. So we often don’t have electricity for hours at a time in such a major city where summertime temperatures are often in the 90s. The development of alternative energy sources is extremely important there as it is everywhere.
And Pakistan is highly suitable for the use of solar power, because it has an extremely high solar insolation rate.
You mean Pakistan gets a lot of sunlight.
Yes, exactly. (laughs) Sorry, I’m an engineer, you know. So Pakistan is very well-matched for the use of solar energy.
You worked on fixing and maintaining photovoltaic (solar power) systems in the village of PinPario. How were these P-V systems provided to PinPario?
Through AEDB. The goal is to electrify a lot of remote villages using P-V technology, and the way they’re going to do that is to install one solar panel per household. The government will assume all capital costs for that.
How much would one solar panel cost?
About $1,000, including the battery and installation. They chose a few villages, including PinPario, in which to pilot this project.
What types of problems did you encounter with the P-V systems?
Many of the problems were rooted in lack of communication with the villagers about how to properly use and maintain the systems. For example, many villagers had disconnected the charge controllers and connected the batteries directly to the panels. While this arrangement is functional in the short term, it has an extremely adverse effect on the life of the battery and causes a host of problems associated with unregulated voltages and currents running through the system.
Simply communicating with the villagers about these problems was an important aspect of the work, in addition to actually fixing the problems. I definitely learned that in any appropriate technology undertaking, communication is of the utmost importance.
You also worked on repair and maintenance of solar stills (solar-powered water purification devices) in the village of Bharmal.
Clean water is a much more immediate need for these villagers than electricity. Electricity is a luxury. But clean drinking water is a need. This is the middle of the desert, and water is scarce. The underground water table is 250 feet below the surface, so it’s very difficult to get to, and even that water is extremely saline and not even close to suitable for consumption by most people. These villagers have developed some immunity, and they manage to drink it, but they still have a lot of associated health problems.
How does a solar still work?
A basic solar still consists of a flat water-basin, whose lid is made of glass and shaped like an obtuse upside-down V. The solar radiation is transmitted through the glass cover and is absorbed by the basin, which is black. The black floor of the basin is in contact with the water, so the water is heated and gives off water vapor. The vapor condenses on the underside of the glass cover and runs down the two sloping halves of the cover and falls into troughs on either side of the basin, and is then fed into a storage container. Having been converted to vapor and then back to liquid water, the water is no longer saline, and the removed salt and many other impurities remain on the floor of the basin.
How effective is such a still in removing salt?
Very effective. AEDB studied these desalination systems and found that sodium was reduced from 11500 mg/l to 124 mg/l. This is an elimination of over 98 percent of the sodium and results in a sodium level below the World Health Organization’s highest desirable level of 200 mg/l.
What types of problems existed with the solar stills in Bharmal?
Here’s another example of a problem that could be avoided by better communication. For maximum efficiency, the stills should be aligned so that the inclined glass receives the maximum amount of sunlight. Therefore the stills should be placed such that the longer side of the basin is aligned in a north-south direction. This enables the exposed glass to receive maximum sunlight, as the sun makes its east-west journey during the day.
The villagers were instructed to make flat elevated platforms for the stills themselves, out of brick. But they were not advised about the optimal alignment. So many of them built platforms in a direction which was less than optimal, resulting in reduced efficiency.
Of course, this is a pilot program, so problems are a normal part of the process. But problems such as this point again to how important communication is in any appropriate technology project.
I do want to point out that AEDB deserves a lot of credit for being sensitive to the needs of the villagers in Thar and working hard to provide solutions to their problems. Problem solving is of course another important part of any pilot program involving appropriate technology.
What’s your overall assessment of these initiatives?
These projects show great promise for improving the standards of living of the poorest Pakistanis living in remote areas. Also, the increased emphasis on the development of alternative energy sources will serve to decrease the great dependence on conventional energy sources. However, while renewable energies offer great promise of progress towards achieving the goal of the availability and accessibility of energy to all Pakistanis, the country has many challenges to overcome before it can reach its projected goal of renewable energies contributing a minimum of 5 percent of the country’s energy mix by 2030. Consistent governmental policies with regards to renewable energies as well as ample funding are required for the success of Pakistan’s renewable energy development policies in the long run.
Do you have any advice for others who are considering doing a short-term service project overseas?
Don’t operate under the conception that you are going there to benefit a lot of other people and that you are doing something very noble. These kinds of immersion trips primarily benefit the person making the trip.
Try to immerse yourself among the people and have as few barriers as possible between them and you. Really try to get to know them and their problems. See things from their perspective. Don’t be prescriptive, telling them what they should have and what they should do. Find out from them what they want and what they need. If you can help them to accomplish what they want to accomplish and not what you think they should accomplish, then you’ve done something worthwhile.
What was the worst thing about being in the desert?
Well, I was in a house in a village in the desert—a house in which water was more precious than gold. Displaying the utmost hospitality, the old man who owned the house got some “sweet water” for me to drink, which obviously was a very precious commodity for him. But due to health considerations, I had to refuse his persuasive offer. And moments later, when the heat finally got to me, I couldn’t help but whip out my flask of mineral water and drink the cold sweet-tasting water I was lucky enough to afford. And from then on I tried to avoid meeting the old man’s eyes.
What was the best thing?
I’ve heard that the most beautiful sight in the desert is the multitude of stars in the night sky. I disagree. I don’t think anything can match driving in the desert at night surrounded by eerie darkness, and then suddenly catching a glimpse of a single light, then two lights, three lights … and then having a completely illuminated village spin into your view, teeming with life.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|