Afghanistan: Power Cuts Leave Helmand Shivering

LASHKAR GAH, Helmand, Afghanistan, February 21, 2008 (ENS) – An unusual cold snap combined with an almost total power blackout has left Helmand residents shivering in their homes.

Most of households, even in the capital, Lashkar Gah, have no electricity at all. Others get it for no more than an hour or two per day – just enough to turn on their water pumps to fill their cisterns.

Even government offices are affected. Work in some places is almost at a standstill, while the local media is unable to broadcast much of the time.

“For God’s sake, what kind of a government this is?” asked Sharafudin, who lives in Lashkar Gah. “Forty different nations have a presence in our country. Have they only come for fighting here? Or do they want to create an opportunity for us to have a good life?”

His complaint is echoed around the province. Many blame central government and international military forces for not fixing the problem.

Helmand’s governor, Assadullah Wafa, said that he had personally taken the matter up with the capital, “I recently traveled to Kabul to complain to the energy minister about our lack of regular electricity.”

Ismail Khan, the minister of power and energy, promised to help, added the governor.

“He pledged that they will make efforts to fix the damaged turbines at the Kajaki [hydro-electric power plant],” said Wafa. “Therefore, I hope that in near future the electricity will be sorted out.”

But Engineer Mohammad Nabi, deputy head of the Helmand power department, said that Kabul had been unresponsive to their situation.

The power station at Kajaki Dam
in southern Afghanistan. (Photo
courtesy British Ministry of Defence)

“We have regularly reported these problems to the ministry [of power and energy] and we do so now as well. But they have never given attention to our reports, and they do not consider our problems to be real problems,” he said.

Hopes for a regular power supply rest on the massive Kajaki hydro-electric dam, which is expected to serve Helmand as well as neighboring Kandahar province. The United States is funding a US$500 million project to fix the power station, but battles with Taliban fighters who control much of the territory around Kajaki have stymied reconstruction efforts.

The dam, constructed with major assistance from America in the mid-1970s, is old and needs extensive repairs in order to keep up with demand. Antiquated turbines are not capable of generating enough power, and cables are wearing out. In some cases, the intense conflict in the areas surrounding the power station have damaged equipment.

This has led to persistent rumors, vehemently denied by the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, that the foreign troops are destroying the power cables.

“The cables and wires are extended over places where foreign troops are based,” said Nabi. “They target the cables and wires with their bullets, breaking the power. Have they come to reconstruct our country or just to harm us?”

Responding to the claims, Lt. Colonel Simon Miller, spokesman for ISAF in Helmand, said, “This is completely false. Why would we do such a thing? There is absolutely no reason for us to damage equipment. We have come to provide security and reconstruction. We have never harmed people, nor will we in the future.”

Last year, the province also experienced frequent power shortages and blackouts. The explanation most often proffered in 2007 was that the Taliban were taking out the cables and lines.

Meanwhile, Governor Wafa says he is still waiting for central government to approve a reconstruction plan for the region. “I presented a plan six months ago,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Americans have postponed the project so far.”

While officials try and spread the blame, residents remain without power.

“I swear I cannot even utter the word ‘electricity’,” said Sharafudin, bitterly. “There is a shop opposite our house, and in the evenings the residents of our lane gather there and they spend all their time talking just about electricity.”

Abdul Malek Mushfeq, head of Helmand Radio and Television, the government-owned broadcast media outlet, said that the lack of power often means that Helmand’s residents are deprived of their local news and information.

“Radio and television are the voice of the people, but we sometimes do not have programs because of lack of electricity,” he said. The station did not have money for fuel to power its generator, he added, and was reduced to borrowing fuel from another state department.

“But if the shortage of electricity goes on, possibly the other department will not be able to lend us fuel. What will we do then?” he said.

U.S. and Romanian engineers inspect
the Kajaki power station. (Official
Romanian army photo by Maj.
Ursuleam Gheorghe)

Abdullah, a civil servant working in the provincial department of information and culture, also expessed frustration. “We need electricity for our computers, for our reports,” he said. “Now we cannot finish our work on time. This is a government office! We have a generator, but we do not have fuel. I am now waiting for electricity so that I can start work.”

Even the power department does not have electricity. One young man invited a reporter into the office, which was being heated by a gas stove.

“Nowadays, power is a big problem,” he said. “I only hope the citizens of Lashkar Gah keep on being patient.”

The problem is not confined to Lashkar Gah. Kajaki supplies all of Helmand and most of neighboring Kandahar.

Abdul Bari, a resident of Musa Qala, which was recently retaken from the Taliban, was also upset at the lack of power.

“We thought that now we would have everything that we need,” he said. “But that was only a daydream. Every day we lose more. I am a vegetable seller in Musa Qala, and I have 10 children. Tell me, should I feed my family or should I buy a generator instead? This government and this governor have not been able to give people power. You cannot run a government this way.”

The Taliban have little sympathy with the plight of locals. “We will never allow Americans and the Afghan government to reconstruct the hydro-power [plant], even if it would bring electricity to people’s houses,” said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mojahed.

“Although the government promises people that they can work in Kajaki and ensure them of security there, the people should not trust these words of the government.”

{This article originally appeared in Afghan Recovery Report, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}

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