By DECLAN WALSH
Published: August 4, 2012
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In a nation thirsting for energy, he loomed like a messiah: a small-town engineer who claimed he could run a car on water.
The assertion — based on the premise that he had discovered a way to easily split the oxygen and hydrogen atoms in water molecules with almost no energy — would, if proven, represent a stunning breakthrough for physics and a near-magical solution to Pakistan’s desperate power crisis.
“By the grace of Allah, I have managed to make a formula that converts less voltage into more energy,” the professed inventor, Agha Waqar Ahmad, said in a telephone interview. “This invention will solve our country’s energy crisis and provide jobs to hundreds of thousands of people.”
Established scientists have debunked his spectacular claims, first made one month ago, saying they violate ironclad laws of physics. But across Pakistan, where crippling electricity cuts have left millions drenched in the sweat of a powerless summer, and where there is hunger for tales of homegrown glory, the shimmering mirage of a “water car” received a broad and serious embrace.
Federal ministers lauded Mr. Ahmad and his vehicle, sometimes at cabinet meetings. The stand-in minister for religious affairs, Khursheed Shah, appeared on television with him and took a ride in his small Suzuki rental, which was hooked up to a contraption that Mr. Ahmad described as a “water kit.” Respected talk show hosts suggested he should get state financing and protection.
The country’s most famous scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan — revered inside Pakistan as the father of the country’s nuclear weaponsprogram and reviled elsewhere as a notorious figure in the international nuclear black market — gave it his imprimatur, too. “I have investigated the matter, and there is no fraud involved,” he told Hamid Mir, a popular television journalist, during a recent broadcast that sealed Mr. Ahmad’s celebrity.
The quest to harness chemical energy from water is a holy grail of science, offering the tantalizing promise of a world free from dependence on oil. Groups in other countries, including Japan, the United States and Sri Lanka, have previously made similar claims. They have been largely ignored.
Not so with Mr. Ahmad, even if he is an unlikely scientific prodigy. Forty years old and a father of five, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1990 from a small technical college in Khairpur, in southern Sindh Province, he said in the interview. For most of his career he worked in a local police department. He is currently unemployed.
But he sprang up at a moment when Pakistan was intensely aware of its power shortcomings. Violent riots erupted across Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Provinces recently as temperatures in some places hovered around 110 degrees amid electricity shortages that stretched up to 20 hours per day. Chronic shortages of natural gas, which powers many cars and homes, result in lines snaking from gas stations. Energy politics are expected to play a prominent role in elections set to take place within the next 10 months.
In another measure of the issue, the United States government has donated heavily to electricity generation projects, hoping to win support from Pakistan’s largely hostile public; last week, Congress authorized $280 million for various hydroelectric projects.
News media commentators said the coverage of Mr. Ahmad’s claims was the Pakistani version of Britain’s “silly season,” when journalists and politicians embrace the unlikely during the annual lull in politics. But for established scientists, it was a symptom of a wider, more worrisome, ignorance of science.
It shows “how far Pakistan has fallen into the pit of ignorance and self-delusion,” wrote Pervez Hoodbhoy, an outspoken physics professor, in The Express Tribune, a national English-language daily. He added: “Our leaders are lost in the dark, fumbling desperately for a miracle; our media is chasing spectacle, not truth; and our great scientists care more about being important than about evidence.”
The “water car” is not the first unlikely episode in Pakistani science. In 2010 Atta ur-Rahman, head of the state higher education body, aired views that the United States government was financing a covert science project in Alaska that sought to manipulate the world’s weather and that could set off earthquakes, floods and tsunamis.
Dr. Rahman’s article incited a furious public debate with other scientists, notably Dr. Hoodbhoy, who has also sought to highlight a worrisome decline in academic standards in Pakistan.
Stories of widespread plagiarism, fake qualifications and doctorates granted under dubious circumstances have circulated in academic circles for several years. “We have had a flood of academic garbage,” Dr. Hoodbhoy said. The trend was inadvertently accelerated under the military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, who required all members of Parliament to hold a college degree — prompting some to acquire fake ones.
Pakistan is not lacking in academic talent. With 68 percent of the population under 30, according to the United Nations, education is a preoccupation among parents across the social spectrum. This year 200 Pakistani undergraduates will start at 50 different American colleges under the government-financed Fulbright educational exchange program.
Yet even the country’s academic achievements are mired in the old problems of politics, prejudice and religion.
The work of a Pakistani particle physicist, Abdus Salam, won him aNobel Prize along with two others scientists in 1979, and it has been credited with paving the way for the discovery of what appears to be the Higgs boson particle, which was announced July 4.
But Dr. Salam, who died in 1996, is largely ignored in his homeland because he was a member of the Ahmadi sect, whose members suffer state-sponsored discrimination and, in recent years, attacks by violent extremists.
For his part, Mr. Ahmad brushed off his critics, claiming to have run the Suzuki for 250 miles on 10 liters of water.
“I am not concerned with theory. I have given a practical demonstration that a vehicle can run on water,” he said. “What more proof do these critics need?”
In a word, more. “Water car” jokes have circulated widely on Twitter, while an Internet comedy group, The Naked Tyrant, rolled out a spoof video featuring a religious man who claimed to make his car run on “pious deeds.”
And, as a reader of one newspaper noted in a letter to the editor: “What is odd is that the only specimen so far on display is the one fitted in his own car.”
Salman Masood contributed reporting.