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Falling off the grid

Nang Durrani
Despite over half a decade of international efforts to ensure the energy security of Kandahar province, this strategic area of south Afghanistan continues to rely on outdated power sources and an under-equipped dam.
4.09.2014  |  Kandahar

As renewed insurgency in neighboring provinces and NATO’s imminent withdrawal threaten ongoing infrastructural projects, Kandahar’s residents and business owners brace for further power outages and economic instability.

Out of the 100 megawatts of electricity required to meet the province’s needs, Kandahar currently receives 26 megawatts. A majority of the existing power supply comes from a power station on the Kajaki Dam in nearby Helmand province. The rest is supplied by three Kandahar-based power sources, the Breshna-koot substation and the temporary diesel-operated generators Baghi Pol and Shur Andam, which has funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) until the end of this year.

The Kajaki Dam, designed to provide 12 megawatts of electricity to Kandahar, is operating below capacity due to drought. Meanwhile, renewed conflict between insurgents and government forces in Helmand has damaged south-bound power lines.  

In parts of Kandahar province, residents face prolonged power outages no one seems to be addressing. Abdul Manan, from the town of Herat Bazar, says residents there have been unable to turn on lights or access water inside their houses for several weeks.

According to a report by Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released on July 30, 2014, Kandahar will lose the bulk of its electricity by September 2015. The U.S. government has already begun gradually reducing the diesel fuel to power generators that it provides in Kandahar and by September 2015, it will cease supplying it altogether. 

 When the US military transition the security responsibility of the province to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, it also intends to allow Afghan government to handle the power generators that currently provides bulk of the electricity. According to the report, the US has commissioned a feasibility study to evaluate the viability of solar power to fill this gap, but the project seems “overly vague" and not viable alternative in any short term. 

The report also said that Kandahar would not be connected to Afghanistan’s two major electric grids until at least 2018 and the only dam in the region, Kajaki Dam, would not be able to generate anywhere near enough power to supply Kandahar’s needs. 

The reliability of power supply from Kajaki dam to Kandahar province, to a larger extent, relies on the security situation along the highway that connects these two provinces, as well as the electric cables. As result of insurgent attacks on this highway, many of the electrical cables and posts have collapsed, exposing Kandahar to prolonged power outages. The recent clashes between government forces and insurgents in the Sangeen district of Helmand province severed cables that transmitted power to four Kandahar districts.

Technicians cannot rebuild this infrastructure unless security is restored in these areas, says Kandahar’s electricity department director Sayeed Rasul. “The security situation along Kandahar and Helmand highway has deteriorated in the past few years, with fighting in four districts of Helmand province,” Rasul added. “Until peace is completely restored in this province, there is no way that we can fix those broken lines.”

Another issue troubling the Kajaki hydroelectric plant is a shortage of water caused by summer droughts. To address the problem, Rasul recently travelled to Kabul to meet with senior officials at the Ministry of Energy and Water. “It was not my first or last trip,” he says. “Every time I go there, the officials assure me of their commitment to help us resolve this problem, but they have not done anything.”

Renewed violence in Helmand has damaged power lines crucial to Kandahar's energy needs. Photo: Nang Durrani

Alternate sources

The U.S.-led construction on the 100-meter high Kajaki Dam began in 1953 as the cornerstone of a regional infrastructural project bringing sewage and irrigation systems to Helmand province. The project involved hundreds of American doctors, educators, and engineers and resulted in the installation of two hydropower turbines in 1975.

The dam’s condition deteriorated following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when Kandahar and Helmand became the centers of insurgency and warfare. The dam remained neglected until the fall of the Taliban regime. Irrigation canals filled up with mud, and the area’s clinics and schools crumbled.

Since late 2001, USAID has invested around $50 million to repair the two old turbines and begin work on a third turbine whose construction is vital to the area’s energy security. But the past decade of infrastructural investments has failed to produce tangible outcomes, especially in the energy sector, says Kandahar’s parliamentary representative Bismillah Afghanmal.

Afghanmal says that during his recent five-day visit to his hometown Kandahar, he experienced only one night with access to electricity. “The electricity shortages affect all of Kandahar. It’s a fundamental challenge affecting every aspect of life in this province. We have brought this issue to the attention of President Hamid Karzai and the Minister of Energy and Water, but they haven’t done anything to address this problem.”

To protest the lack of electricity in their province as well as the central government’s lack of attention to their problems, Afghanmal suggests all local officials collectively resign from their jobs. This “final option” should result in the formation of a lobby group which Afghanmal himself is offering to lead to Kabul.  “The group should go to meet the President and tell him that unless the issue of electricity is addressed, they are quitting,” he says.

Bad for business

A major obstacle to the installation of Kajaki Dam’s third turbine is insecurity. While technicians were able to transport most of the tools and equipment to the site, work has been interrupted three times due to a surge of violence in the area, says Abdul Razaq Samadi, head of Afghanistan’s National Power Grid Company . The project is slated for completion in 2016, and should increase the Kajaki Dam’s output by 17 megawatts.

Samadi is also leading efforts to import some 1000 megawatts of electricity from Turkmenistan. A significant portion of this imported electricity will be supplied to Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul, and Kandahar provinces.

But these projects will take years to complete, while the needs of Kandahar residents is immediate. In lieu of the third generator at Kajaki, the government usually provides Kandahar factories with solar energy to make up for the deficiencies. But as Helmand province struggles to address the power cuts caused by fighting, a majority of solar power has been redirected to Helmand households, leaving Kandahar-based businesses vulnerable to outages.  

Magrai, a major industrial park in Kandahar province, contains 68 factories producing everything from salt, steel and aluminum to cooking oil and chicken meat.  Speaking to Afghanistan Today, owners said their major concern was the factories’ lack of reliable access to electricity.

Although the factories still retain access to solar energy for a few hours each day, owners say it is not enough to operate at normal levels. Production has dropped 50 percent in recent weeks, says Fazilluhaq, the head of the Kandahar industrialists’ union.  “Before, it was really good when we had three to four hours of regular electricity,” he adds. “But with the power lines falling down in Helmand and Kandahar province, our industries are facing daunting challenges and fighting for their survival.”