Unchanged in generations, villages in Afghanistan's Shugnan district are now hooked up to Tajik energy lines as cross-border cooperation grows. (Photo: Khushqadam Usmoni) Main story photo: Pilons relay Tajik power south of Dushanbe. (Photo: UNDP)
And then there came light.
For Lashkarbek, an inhabitant of northern Afghanistan’s remote Shughnan district in Badakhshan, the supply of electricity from Tajikistan that came in the last three years has been the greatest turnaround he can recall in local life.
“It is now possible to use electricity around the clock, and money we previously used for heating and lightening can be used to improve social and economic conditions of the nine members of my family,” he says.
With headlines dominated by international military withdrawal and Taliban gains, the gradual creation of a functioning national power grid hasn’t caused much of a buzz. It deserves to, say those building the system, which relies partly on the hydro-electric capacity of Afghanistan's northern neighbour, and could grow much faster if competing suppliers stopped moving the goalposts.
Still, “the day when all of Afghanistan sparkles with illumination is not far off,” believes Afghan Deputy Minister of Energy and Water Ghulam Farugh Qazizada.
Ripening market and jealous rivals
At present, a third of Afghanistan’s population of 30 million has a dependable electricity supply, according to his ministry. It is only about half of the 65 per cent projected by the end of 2013 by the government’s National Development Strategy. Then again, the pace of expansion has been rapid in the past decade: "In 2002, only 0.6 per cent of Afghans had mains electricity," said Qazizada.
The supplied third of the Afghan population annually consumes 1050MW, mainly in the cities, 60 per cent of which is generated domestically. Barishno, Afghanistan's main commercial energy provider, estimates that by 2020 the country will annually need 3000MW electricity.
Tajikistan supplies 28.5 per cent of the 1050 megawatts annually consumed by the third of the Afghan population that is hooked up to the grid.
The country’s own power stations are in varying states of disrepair and mostly run at partial capacity, for example the plant at Kajaki in Helmand. Despite a capacity of 100MW, it currently generates 33MW electricity, since insurgent forces do not allow cement to reach Kajaki for the installation of a new turbine that will boost capacity to 51MW. Meanwhile, Kandahar City still lacks 400 MW of electricity.
So hopes are also focused on supplies of neighbours who are now jostling for the Afghan market and offering greatly differing terms and conditions. Experts consulted said electricity imported from Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is three times as expensive as power supplies from Tajikistan, which reportedly amounted to 300MW in 2011.
This should allow Tajikistan to take a lead in energy exports south, especially if it can complete the Soviet-era hydropower station at Rogun, which would produce 3600MW a year and make it a major energy player in Central Asia.
“But the power plant’s construction encountered hindrances from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and especially Uzbekistan, who say Tajikistan will leave the downstream countries without sufficient water volume,” said Qazizada.
Plentiful summer supply
Tajikistan is ready to transmit 600MW electricity to Afghanistan in the summer time, according to Tajik Minister of Energy and Industry Gul Sherali. This, however, illustrates the seasonal nature of hydro-power, with generation falling in the winter when rivers are low or frozen.
Exerting this leverage, Uzbekistan is said to have pressured Tajikistan not to hike its supplies to Afghanistan or risk losing vital Uzbek energy imports in the winter.
And under existing agreements, energy supplies to Afghanistan are still suspended if Tajikistan experiences shortages, said Abdullo Yorov, a manager at the Barqi Tojik provider, which sends its excess power to villages across the border in Badakhshan.
Uzbek power rival: Afghan President Hamid Karzai energizes a substation to begin the transfer of electricity from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan. (Photo: USAID/IRP)
Challenges also include the lack of power transmission lines south from Tajikistan.
“We must work,” says Deputy Minister Qazizada, citing key projects like the construction of the transmission line with US funds from the largely Russian-financed Sangtuda-1 hydropower station, located 160 kilometres south of Dushanbe. The line connects the Puli-e Khumri power plant in Kunduz Province with the Kabul electricity network, which is still hungry for extra voltage.
Barishno’s commercial director Mirvais Olimi says that in addition to the 350MW now supplied to Kabul from all sources, another 150MW would comfortably meet the existing city’s needs. But “around 500 MW more is required to establish bigger enterprises that would create employment and reduce poverty in the city,” Olimi says.
Economists also say real challenges of building the Afghan grid are yet to be faced, such as creation of an industrial base capable of exploiting Afghanistan’s underground wealth.
“Huge enterprises are required to process in order to process untouched natural resources,” said Afghan economist Vakil Ahmad, citing the example of a leading Tajik aluminium plant which consumes 20 million kilowatts an hour. “If there was a similar enterprise in Afghanistan, no [existing] power facility could ensure its operation,“ Ahmad said.
Lighting the dark age
While geopolitics continue to shape the generation and sale of energy, smaller projects are making steps with some immunity from great power games. Tajik electricity first crossed the border to Shughnan District in 2002 and slowly spread from village to village.
“Power is transmitted all year round and the number of clients and users is annually increasing,” said Asadullo, the engineer responsible for electricity management in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province. Approximately 1,000 households are now hooked up to the supply, he said.
In the six producing months of the year, the Tajik companies Barqi Tojik and Pamir Energy transmitted 245 million KW/hour to border villages of Afghan Badakhshan. It is a start, say managers.
'The day when all of Afghanistan sparkles with illumination is not far off." Afghan Deputy Minister of Energy and Water Ghulam Farugh Qazizada
“The company has the opportunity to export more electricity power to Badakhshan districts of Afghanistan apart from Shughnan,” said Daler Jumaev, chairman of Pamir Energy. According to Jumayev, hydroelectricity is sold to Afghan Badakhshan at affordable local rates rather than international tariffs.
The bottom line, however, says economist Ahmad, is that even though Afghanistan is waiting for power and Tajikistan could potentially provide it, "Tajikistan cannot realize its energy dreams alone."
The country has turned to the World Bank to help win support from the US and Europe and is courting Russia too as it hatches its biggest dream project to date.
With financial support from the World Bank and in partnership with Kyrgyzstan, Tajik authorities are trying to implement the largest electricity project from Central Asia to South Asia, called CASA 1000. Eventually fielding a 500kW transmission line, it will send electricity from Rogun and the Qambar-Ata plant in Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Russia has also taken an active interest in the long-term prospects of the line.