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A Kunar power struggle

Imran Waak
Drawn by Kunar’s rich hydroelectric power generation potential, companies started projects in this mountainous and conflict-rife province only to pull out again. But there is still power to be had for your home or…
20.05.2013  |  Asadabad
Well connected: A rare example of a store with 24-hour electricity in Asadabad. Some locals say corruption explains most exceptions to the provincial power shortages (Photos Waak)
Well connected: A rare example of a store with 24-hour electricity in Asadabad. Some locals say corruption explains most exceptions to the provincial power shortages (Photos Waak)

The police officer stands regulating traffic by flashlight and is only fully visible when illuminated by passing headlights. Across the street, a man with a torch squints at a scratch card as he tops up his mobile phone account. It is not even 8pm in Asadabad, but apart from two stores selling vegetables and soft drinks, that’s all of the visible artificial light at this spot in Kunar’s capital.

The Asadabad power station, the province's only functioning plant, is currently operating at around 75 per cent of its 400 kW capacity. But with the collapse of successive moves to expand output, available current is not enough. And there the corruption begins, say those who have tried in vain to get hooked up to the grid.

“People in our neighbourhood who have both money and power also have round the clock electricity,” says Abdul Q. , a resident of the city’s Karhalay district. “While I must take my mobile phone to our neighbour’s house every evening to charge it. There is no government whatsoever – power governs here ...  Some people enjoy life but we still sit beneath hurricane lamps.”

According to Abdul, dishonest utulities officials cut deals with a single home owner, who then charges other homes in the area to hook up to his 24-hour connection.  “They take a certain percentage in commissions, one person is provided with a license and then the power is distributed for the whole village at a very high price,” he claimed.

Most home owners with 24-hour power supply in otherwise unpowered parts of town declined to comment on how they got this. But one proud new supplier of power to his neighbours recounted how a bluff paid off handsomely for both his home and wallet.

"Some people enjoy life, but we still sit under hurricane lamps." Kunar resident unable to get a regular power supply.

“I went and requested permission for 24-hour connection from a senior official of the electricity department, but that didn’t go well. So I asked two friends from my village to help,” the man said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “First we went and bought new shoes and clothes and then we visited him again. I told him that I am the secretary of a certain parliamentarian and that the other two were his brothers.

"He granted us permission and we installed 24-hour cables in our houses,” said the man. He added that he now makes the equivalent of 5,000 to 15,000 afghanis (up to 270 US dollars) a month selling power to his neighbours.

"We cannot knock on everyone's door"

But officials at Kunar’s electricity department say power is evenly and fairly distributed to inhabitants and that no one jumps the queue.

An engineer at work at the Asadabad power plant which managed to stay operational against the odds for three decades.

“We have installed electricity meters all over the city, and maintain an even electricity  distribution mechanism,” says Abdullah, the head of Kunar's power generation authority. “Electricity is intermittent because capacity is insufficient and demand is very high.”
However, he concedes the possibility of cases of irregularities by consumers. “For example, a family may have installed a meter but is secretly distributing electricity to other households in the village. But we cannot knock on the door of every household every night and ask them if there is any misuse of electricity.”

The head of Kunar’s powerful provincial council, Mia Hassan Adel, also says shortfalls are inevitable due to capacity limitations, and that these also affect government facilities.

“Twice I have summoned the head of the electricity directorate and asked him to provide proper and regular electricity to city residents,” said Adel. “But he is not to be blamed, because people don’t pay their bills so their electricity is cut off, and then they complain about being left in the dark.”

In happier times

Kunar was relatively well supplied with power 30 years ago after the German company Siemens laid the foundations in the late 1970s for a 700kW facility at Asadabad. The project ground to a halt with the 1979 Soviet invasion but the site was later completed by two Afghan companies.

Its capacity peaked at 800kW after additional canal construction, said Tajj Mohammad Fanee, who ran the plant in 1987 and still works for the provincial electricity supplier. “But when the civil war started [in 1992], much of the machinery was sold as scrap and as time passed the plant was on the brink of collapse.”

Capacity halved to 350-400kW, but during the Taliban’s rule a replacement turbine was brought from Nangarhar and a servicing and spare parts supply system was put in place, enabling the plant to stay operational. More deterioration occurred after 2002, and a contract was signed with a Russian company to upgrade the station.

Electricity grid connection box on  a pylon outside Asadabad.

”They brought some equipment, but then the company pulled out of the project,” says Fanee. 

But electricity chief Ataullah says provincial power supply will see some big changes in the next few years. Two more companies have shown an interest in the reconstruction of the Asadabad plant, one German and one Russian.

The German company proposed raising the capacity of the plant to two megawatts at a cost of just 900,000 US dollars, he said. But the government did not follow this up because the Russian rival offered to undercut the estimate, he said. But, “as time passed, that company fled and the plant is in its old state."

But a new project with an Afghan company to construct a 2.1MW plant in Kunar’s Manogai District has now been inked, he said. The facility will be built over the next three years and will service 20,000 households, he said.

Sites were also identified for two more river plants at Sagee and Shaal that will have a combined output of 1.1 MW, he said. And there are also plans to divert up to 5 MW of electricity to Kunar from the Naghlu power station in Nangarhar.  

But for now the province and its population of just over 400,000 people must make do with one struggling plant. And until more come online, the electricity department chief might do well to steer clear of provincial officials like Adel, who receive endless citizens' complaints about the shortages.

“I have stopped [Abdullah] in scorching sun for hours to explain the problem,” says Adel. “But he insists that the electricity is limited and consumers’ number is very high. So some get it and some don't.”