Battle to electrify Kandahar shows Afghan dilemma
Feb 7, 2010 - Heidi Vogt - The Associated Press
About 90 factories sit vacant in the economic capital of southern Afghanistan. They could fight militants in a way no army could, employing thousands of people and giving them a reason to shun the Taliban.
A lack of reliable electricity is what's keeping the factories silent and useless in the fight against insurgency. And it's the insurgency, in large part, that's keeping them that way.
The dilemma is the same throughout Afghanistan's ungoverned south, where NATO is gearing up for a major offensive: Development is needed to wrest people away from militants, but fighting regularly thwarts such projects - wasting millions in the process.
The main power source for Kandahar city should be the Kajaki Dam in neighboring Helmand province, but a six-year-old plan to repair it has been repeatedly delayed by fighting and the difficulty of securing roads long enough to get supplies in.
Two existing hydroelectric turbines at the dam were repaired by helicoptering in supplies at a cost of $7 million, according to a report by the U.S. government, which is funding the effort. Officials managed to get a new third turbine up to the dam with a weeklong, 4,000-troop convoy in September, but now have decided the road is too insecure to truck in supplies. They aren't sure it's worth the expense to fly in 900 tons of cement and aggregate to complete the project.
The dam reconstruction, originally budgeted at $47.9 million, has already cost nearly double that much, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. One additional cost - a Chinese subcontractor backed out because of kidnapping threats, stalling work.
The agency is now holding onto another $50 million in earmarked funds in the hope that there will be a lull in the fighting long enough to get another convoy in, said John Smith-Sreen, who oversees energy projects for the U.S. government development agency.
"And the proper moment has not come, sadly. Now we're looking at a situation that if it doesn't come in the next several months we have to make a decision as to other opportunities within Afghanistan," he said, explaining that a number of power options in other parts of the country may be a better use of the money.
This is bad news for Kandahar city - home to the bulk of people in one of Afghanistan's most volatile provinces. People here regularly complain that their real problems are economic: Help them get jobs and build businesses, they say, and support for the Taliban will wane.
Taliban leaders in the south here pay wages to young men who otherwise wouldn't have jobs to become guerrilla fighters or suicide bombers. Poor rains push farmers to the most resilient crop: poppy used for opium production.
The senior U.S. civilian representative for the province has a computer printout on his office wall that makes the same point. It uses arrows to show security decreasing as support for insurgents increases, then proclaims: "It's the electric power stupid."
"We do a lot of polling in the city and we have a lot of eyes and ears out there," the representative, Bill Harris, said. "Everybody has electricity at the top of the list."
Forty-year-old Mohammad Naim can't afford a backup generator for the Kandahar factory where he makes plastic sandals - he says running one of the diesel machines would raise costs so much that he'd be selling his shoes at a loss. So he gets by with about 12 hours of power every other day.
"We have 15 workers and we have to pay them, even if we don't have electricity," Naim said. "If there's no power for a long time, I'll have to quit my business and fire my workers. Then there's the fear that they will start illegal activities in the city or join the militants."
On a perfect day, Kandahar can get about 26 megawatts of power, 12 from the Kajaki dam and 14 from two diesel generators supplied by the United States, according to Fazel Ahmad, the director of the Kandahar city power plant.
That's only enough to power half the city each day. Actual demand tops 50 megawatts of power, Ahmad said. So they employ rolling blackouts, giving one neighborhood electricity one day, and another power the next.
And there is seldom a perfect day. Kandahar got a boost of power when the second turbine at the Kajaki dam came online in October, but then the transmission line was cut in mid-January. It was repaired at the end of the month after a standard round of negotiations by government electricity workers to get in and out of the area safely.
The line - which stretches 125 miles (200 kilometers) over some of the most dangerous districts in Afghanistan - gets cut a couple times a year, Smith-Sreen said, though he said it was unclear if they were intentionally cut by Taliban or as a result of fighting.
Farmers in the countryside say it's the Taliban. In Helmand province's Sangin district, 44-year-old Mohammad Khaliq says the insurgents have cut lines in his area.
In recent years, the Taliban have exacted taxes on farmers who use the electricity and cut lines in areas where they feel people are supporting the government, said Anwer Jan Aqa, a farmer in Kajaki district.
Generator power also can be spotty because of problems getting diesel fuel from the capital city of Kabul. The U.S. pays about $2 million a year for the generators and their upkeep, according to Smith-Sreen, but the Afghan government has committed to supplying diesel fuel.
The power plant had no fuel for most of December because the contractor who delivers the diesel had not been paid, Ahmad said. He got his money in early January and the generators are back online, Ahmad added.
If the push to electrify Kandahar city succeeds, the potential payoff is great. It would mean lights in the streets at night, access to news broadcasts and the opportunity to grow Kandahar into a manufacturing hub that can compete with neighboring Pakistan.
In subdistrict 7 of the city, 35-year-old Razia Mohammadi said regular power would make people better off and better informed.
"We wash out clothes by hand. I could have a washing machine," she said. "And we could watch the news, get information about security."
The capital city has seen it happen. When a power line from Uzbekistan went on line in Kabul last spring, families rushed out to buy televisions and lights glittered in the hills surrounding the city. People started to talk about Kabul being on the way up.
Those working on the electricity problem in Kandahar are considering all kinds of options: from solar and hydropower in outlying villages, to bringing electricity in from a nearby military airfield on the edge of the city, to just building rows of new generators, said Louis Martinaglia, the southern region manager for a company that has the U.S. government electricity contract in Afghanistan.
But right now most of the factories in a U.S.-funded industrial park in Kandahar are empty. No one has paid for fuel for a bank of back-up generators at the site for years, and then the machines were hit by a bomb strike in August, temporarily disabling them.
A former fruit-canning factory in the city center is probably the busiest of the Kandahar's abandoned industrial sites; it now serves as a base for Canadian and U.S. forces.
Associated Press Writer Noor Khan contributed to this report in Kandahar.