An Interview With A Development Worker: Shahid Khan

Shahid Khan is the founder and CEO of the Indus Earth Trust, a development project which is based in Pakistan.  In this interview he talks about his work helping people to build their own earthquake proof house, start their own business, and become an autonomous agent in the local economy.  Starting the informal interview out with questioning me, Alex Dunedin, about the Ragged University project, he then goes on to talking about his experience of trying to get people to adopt sustainable development techniques which take account of the cost to the environment.

Shahid Khan portrait

Indus Earth Trust was established with the aim to build the natural environment and foster community development through supporting the local people and understanding the culture rather than imposing ideas and values on people from the outside.  A key focus is on creating community based infrastructure.


The methods are about empowerment, not about sterile notions of charity.  The local peoples are given the resources, training and agency to build what they need rather than having things done for them.


Infrastructure projects include the co-creation of tube wells, rural electrification via wind turbines, sanitation and sewage treatment for provision of bio-gas, sustainable irrigation, and provision of potable water.  Alongside this, there is teaching of human rights and how to enact them.


Indus Earth is driven to raise living standards by enhancing socio-economic conditions through an integrated development approach.  Shahid talks about a paradigm shift happening based upon need.


We need to entirely rethink the way we live, Shahid says.  The wasteful way in which we live cannot be sustained and the life systems which we rely upon are collapsing.  He has seen the result of the deforestation of Pakistan which results in flash floods, soil erosion and dust bowls that cannot sustain life.  He pertinently reveals that for each kilo of coffee we use, 20 tonnes of water are needed. This figure seemed extraordinary, so I did some research.


According to the Hidden Waters report created by Waterwise in 2007, each kilo of coffee has about 20,000 litres of embedded water in it. That is, it takes 20,000 litres of water to make one kilo of beans.  The weight of 1000 liters of pure water at 4 degrees Celsius weighs 1000 kilograms, thus 20,000 litres of water is 20,000 kilos. A “metric tonne” (spelt with an extra “ne”) weighs exactly 1000 kilograms. Therefore, in a metric tonne you would get 1000 litres of water. This all suggests that 20 tonnes of water go into making a kilo of coffee…


Food for thought!  This is one small point which he raises, as it helps highlight how we are all implicated in the destruction of the environment for our consumer trends.  Whether it is the mining of minerals for our mobile phones, the growing of cotton for cheap clothes, or the production of tea and coffee for our leisurely ‘breaks’ – it all demands rethinking in social, economic and environmental terms; these are all linked.


Imperative is the reduced use of fossil fuels and the encouragement of the exploration of renewable energy, parallel to ensuring the protection of flora, fauna, and marine life. This way of thinking need not suggest an impoverishment of choice; in fact, he raises the points that traditional technologies are more suited to the environment and carry greater benefits.


Teaching people how to use earth and bamboo to create their own houses rather than breeze blocks and concrete, leads to structures that last a lifetime, are cooler in the summertime, and warmer in the wintertime.  Not only this, but combining these lighter weight materials with architectural innovations from France where rondels are used in the foundations, the result is that earthquake proof structures are made.



Specifically Shahid mentions a powerful architecture and building method developed by an organisation called CRATerre who champion the use of mud as an accessible and sustainable building material in earthquakeproof design.


Mud as a building material has been used for eleven millennia and remains today the most commonly used building material worldwide. One third of humanity lives in an earthen habitat, that is, over two billion people in 150 countries. Earthen architecture, simple or monumental, are present in various contexts and meet very diverse needs.


CRAterre has been running since 1979 via the International Earth Building Centre and work hard for the recognition of earth as a material to meet the challenges of the environment, cultural diversity and the fight against poverty. CRAterre has three main objectives:

  • better use of local resources, human and natural,
  • improve housing and living conditions
  • valuing cultural diversity.


The project is run by an international multidisciplinary team. CRAterre Association is a part of the Research Laboratory of the Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Architecture de Grenoble, bringing together researchers, professionals and teachers.  It works with many partners, encouraging the establishment of creative links between research, field work, training and the dissemination of knowledge.