Power to the People:
Afghanistan Holds Key to Ambitious Plan for Regional
Mar 31, 2008 - International Herald
Haze drapes the surrounding mountains
as a U.S. military convoy swerves into this town on
a late wintry afternoon. The streets are lined with
faces that are wary to borderline hostile. This is
Ghazni, a province too dangerous for humanitarian
workers to enter, which gained notoriety last year
when 23 South Korean missionaries were kidnapped here.
When the convoy stops, a crowd of boys
and old men swells around Dr. Ramey Wilson, an Army
"What do you folks need around here?
Children immunized? Any problems with eye diseases?
Need good schools? Schools for the girls?" Wilson
calls out. No, we have all that, the crowd answers
One by one, a chorus of the older voices
builds, as the men press forward.
"What we need is electricity," they
say, through Wilson's Afghan translator. "To power
computers. For our children. To connect to the Internet."
U.S. forces are trying to foster economic
development across several provinces south of Kabul,
extending in a triangle southeast from Ghazni some
250 kilometers, or 150 miles, to the border with Pakistan.
With the help of provincial reconstruction teams and
the U.S. Agency for International Development, they
are building roads to connect villages to local markets
and to improve communications between provincial cities
like Ghazni, Gardez amd Khost.
But building roads is one thing; building
and protecting more vulnerable infrastructure, like
electricity and telecommunications networks is another.
In four recent weeks, cellphone towers were struck
by Taliban insurgents nine times, according to Nic
Lee, director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office,
a project to promote the security of aid and humanitarian
Reported attacks on the country's electricity
infrastructure have been relatively few in recent
years, according to the Memorial Institute for the
Prevention of Terrorism, a U.S. organization that
tracks terrorist activity. But that could quickly
change, if there were more electricity infrastructure
Still, despite the risks, plans are
inching along to supply more power to Afghanistan
from neighboring countries. Next month, in Islamabad,
government representatives from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan,
Afghanistan, and Pakistan are scheduled to meet to
make a final economic assessment of a $500 million
project to build a 1,300 megawatt, high-transmission
power line from the two central Asian countries through
Afghanistan and across the Khyber Pass to Peshawar,
The line would supply 1,000 megawatts
to Peshawar and 300 megawatts to Kabul, where chronic
power shortages mean residents get only about three
to four hours of electricity a day.
The project, backed by financing from
The World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Islamic
Development Bank, would be the first step toward a
planned Central Asia-South Asia regional electricity
market, or Casarem.
The U.S. government supports the plan
as a way to promote economic integration and regional
If implemented, it would link the two
central Asian countries to the south Asian grid for
the first time, initially to take surplus electricity
during the summer months from hydropower plants in
central Asia, and export it to Pakistan, where robust
economic growth and a 10 percent annual rise in power
demand are creating a large and growing supply deficit.
Down the road, the project's supporters
hope to extend the grid by building a connection to
India, where strong economic growth is also causing
a worsening power crunch. India has expressed interest
in participating at a later stage, said Sunill Khosla,
an energy specialist with the World Bank in Kabul.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have large,
and largely untapped, hydro resources. Tajikistan's
potential could be as great as 40,000 megawatts and
Kyrgyzstan's some 26,000 megawatts, energy analysts
In both countries, however, the lack
of a strong domestic market has held back hydropower
development. The Casarem project could therefore play
an important role in stimulating new plant construction.
"There is a very clear incentive for
all four countries to work together to make this happen,"
said Rune Stroem, energy specialist at the Asian Development
Bank. "Electricity is the raw material for economic
growth of the region."
As a part of the project, Afghanistan
would also receive transit fees.
In the initial planning, the three
development banks are evaluating the capacity of existing
hydro plants to furnish power for the transmission
line, which could be up and running by 2010.
The banks expect the initial project
to be fully financed by themselves and the four governments,
with private sector involvement coming in a later
An advertisement seeking expressions
of interest in Casarem last year generated inquiries
from 35 companies. But bank specialists said they
expected the private sector to invest later rather
than sooner - mainly in building new power plants
and transmission lines in central Asia, including
in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Until now, Russian companies have been
the dominant investors in central Asian electricity,
and energy analysts say they expect the Russian power
monopoly RAO UES to play a major role in future projects.
The U.S. power company AES, which already operates
in Kazakhstan, could also be a player, they said.
Chinese companies, too, may participate
in Casarem, to export electricity to Xinjiang, said
Sebastien Peyrouse, a central Asia expert, in an analysis
last year for a studies program at Johns Hopkins University.
Half the provinces of China face regular
power shortages, Peyrouse said, and the state-run
Sinohydro, the principal hydroelectric power constructor
in China, has signed a deal to develop the Yavan power
station in northern Tajikistan.
Iran, too, is developing central Asian
energy resources. In August an Iranian company, Sangab,
working for the Iranian government, started construction
of the Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant in Tajikistan.
With oil prices cresting recently above
$110 a barrel, energy companies are looking everywhere
for new sources. "Everything is bubbling all over,"
Stroem said, although that could cut both ways, if
it diverted investment away from central Asia to other
locations, he noted.
In any case, developing generating capacity
serves little purpose without a transmission grid:
and to open South Asia to the central Asian generators,
"electricity corridors come up against the Afghan
question: as an essential transit point for any expansion
to the south, its political instability has largely
put the brakes on developing cooperation," Peyrouse
The Afghan government proposes to deal
with that issue by providing power to some communities
along the route of the proposed Casarem transmission
line, to build popular support for the project by
spreading the benefits. Among the first beneficiaries
would be commercial centers like Mazar-e-Sharif and
Jalalabad, said Khosla, the World Bank's energy specialist.
But Afghanistan also needs an emergency
response system to deal with a terrorist attack on
its electricity infrastructure, said a U.S. development
official who requested anonymity because he was not
authorized to speak on the matter. Afghanistan currently
has no such system, he said.
Beyond the lack of an emergency response
system lies a larger issue, added Johannes Linn, executive
director of the Wolfenson Center for International
Development. While the benefits of Casarem project
are fully recognized, the full risks may not be.
"The project doesn't address the larger
question: 'What if Afghanistan falls entirely?' "
Originally published by The New York
Times Media Group.
(c) 2008 International Herald Tribune.
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All