Eastern Afghanistan struggles for power

Being supplied with electricity in Jalalabad requires both political and grid connections.


    Jalalabad, Afghanistan - It's hot in Jalalabad in June. Temperatures top 40 degrees Celsius and this weather hangs round all summer in this eastern Afghan city. 

    In the centre of town, Abdul Hadi is making sheer yakh, Afghan ice cream, in large metal containers in piles of shaved ice. Inside his shop, ceiling fans stave off the searing afternoon heat. Hadi says his electricity comes at a high price.

    "Our diesel generator is running right now, there's no electricity," he says. "The government promises us electricity but doesn't provide it. If someone has [political] connections, they have electricity 24 hours a day. If you don't have connections you don’t have electricity."

    The provincial energy director is trying to change that. Muhib Rahman Momand has been in the job a little under two years, and he understands the challenges ahead. 

    "In today's modern life in the 21st century, people's basic need is electricity," he says. But Jalalabad's power infrastructure is mired firmly in the 20th century. The main source of its electricity is the Soviet-era Darunta Dam and hydroelectric plant built in 1964. Old equipment and years of neglect have left its intake filters clogged and its power station functioning at about half capacity.

    The Durunta Dam near Jalalabad gives the city less than
    half the power it needs [Jennifer Glasse/Al Jazeera]

    Momand says he took a big risk opening flood gates that had been closed through decades of war, but it succeeded in removing the silt. Afghan engineers repaired one turbine, and an US grant upgraded another, although at vastly different costs. The USAID upgrade cost $7.8 million, the Afghan repairs cost just over $7,000. Another Soviet-era dam, the Naghlu, 25 kilometres outside Kabul, supplies the rest of Nangarhar's electricity.

    The right connections

    Momand says he does not understand how billions of aid dollars could have been spent over the past 12 years in Afghanistan, yet the country still cannot produce enough power for the population.

    "I confirm that in Afghanistan a lot of money has come here, there's been a lot of aid," he says. "But it has been wasted on small things. I think it has not solved the problems of the people of Jalalabad."

    In late May, Momand presided over the inauguration of a new transformer in a Jalalabad neighborhood named "the village of light". Its residents say, thanks to the transformer they will finally have light and regular power, although not for 24 hours a day. Jalalabad needs far more electricity than it has.

    With the newest transformer, Momand estimates 40 percent of the city has access to power. But it has to be prioritised, explains Eshanullah Shayan, the commercial director at the power company. The hospital, university dormitories, the local irrigation system and other public services are given constant power. What's left over is distributed to the parts of the city that have wiring.

    For areas that aren't on the power grid, there is an alternative. Private companies operate diesel-powered generators and private distribution networks. There are 33 providers, such as the one managed by Qari Esmatullah Arab.

    Workers spend hot summer days throwing water on a converted truck engine and turbine to keep it cool. Connected to it all is a makeshift, ageing power grid that supplies electricity to 500 homes and businesses. At 90 cents a kilowatt, the price is 20 times the cost of government-supplied power.

    "Our service is for the rich, the businessman," Arab says. "It's not for the poor. The poor should go to the government and the government should give them electricity."

    Arab understands the dilemma of the poor. Even though he manages a private power station, he lives outside the city, too far to get power from his own station or any other. Nearly 90 percent of Afghans in the districts and villages outside Jalalabad city have no access to government-supplied electricity, and they have few other options.

    Power struggle

    International aid organisations and the National Solidarity Program, administered by the Afghan department of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, have installed some solar panels and micro-hydro electric plants in rural areas that power a few dozen up to a few hundred homes at a time, but only for basic needs such as lights, fans and TV sets. It's not enough electricity for an air conditioner, or to run machinery that could support a business.

    Lack of electricity over the past three years means investors aren't investing. If it starts working, then there will be less unemployment and poverty here, but now, there's no electricity in the industrial park.

    Muhib Rahman Momand,
    provincial energy director

    On the outskirts of Jalalabad, an industrial park is supposed to attract business, and create jobs. For now it's largely derelict. "There's no other park like it in the region," says Momand. "Lack of electricity over the past three years means investors aren't investing. If it starts working, then there will be less unemployment and poverty here, but now, there's no electricity in the industrial park."

    The Shurandam industrial park outside of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan had a similar problem, until USAID installed diesel generators to supply power. The cost of diesel fuel makes running the generators economically unsustainable, and it remains uncertain what will happen to businesses in the park when international fuel subsidies are withdrawn and they have to bear the true cost of electricity.

    Afghanistan has vast hydroelectric capability which, if exploited correctly, could serve the needs of the whole country.

    Since the US-led invasion in 2001, no new major hydroelectric power plant has been constructed. Nangarhar provincial electricity director Momand says the Kunar River would be a perfect place to construct one. Surveys show two different points on the river - one with potential to produce 800MW of electricity, while another could produce 300MW.

    Either would be more than enough to supply Jalalabad and the eastern provinces.

    "If they had been built, we could even sell electricity to Kabul," Momand says. "We could give electricity to the provinces surrounding Kabul."

    Even if Jalalabad had enough power, the system is currently too old to handle it. The original power grid was designed for a much smaller city. The population in the area has grown from around 200,000 in 2001 to 1.5 million today.

    Momand has a plan to expand. In the next three years, he hopes to be able to supply all of Jalalabad city with constant, reliable power. Then he says he can move on to the rural areas.

    Afghans have a right to electricity, he says, and he will do all he can to bring it to them.

    Follow Jennifer Glasse on Twitter: @JenniferGlasse

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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