A Dam Shame: What a Stalled Hydropower Project Says About Failures in Afghanistan

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran / The Washington Post / Getty Images

An image of the Kajaki Dam, built by U.S. engineers in the 1950s, March 23, 2011 in Kajaki, Aghanistan.

To be filed under: You have got to be kidding me.

One of US Aid’s biggest projects in Afghanistan, the $128 million rehabilitation of a key hydroelectric power plant launched in 2002, might never reach its potential wattage. Because, well, nine years on folks are starting to wonder if it might not be cost effective to build in a war zone.

The Guardian’s Jon Boon writes this week about the fate of Helmand Province’s Kajaki Dam Hydroelectric project after USAid budget cuts put the project in peril. As it stands, a $3million turbine, hauled by British troops 100 miles through enemy territory in one of “the most daring operation of its kind since the second world war,” sits moldering in its original crates a couple hundred meters from where it could be pumping out much needed electricity for the region.

Back in the summer of 2008 I spent nearly a month with British Paratroopers tasked with guarding that power plant in northern Helmand. I was there to write about the continuation of a 60-year-old American project to bring electricity to Afghanistan’s southern provinces. What had been started in the 1950s as part of a program to expand American influence in Central Asia had taken on a new urgency after the U.S. war in Afghanistan, when  “winning hearts and minds” became the new mantra.

In the story I wrote about how the U.S. government had initially dammed the upper reaches of the Helmand River and embarked on a massive reservoir and irrigation project. Then, in 1975 they installed two turbines that generated enough power to light up the country’s southern provinces, but they left room for a third turbine, and laid the groundwork for an even larger power station nearby that could bring the total energy capacity of the Kajaki Dam project up to 150 MW—nearly 20% of Afghanistan’s current energy demand. But in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the American project came to a halt.

Decades of war and neglect ensued, and the power plant fell into disrepair. By the time U.S. engineers returned to the powerhouse in 2002, it was squeezing out just 3 megawatts, and even that only because of the efforts of the head Afghan engineer, Rasul Baqi. He and the few remaining engineers improvised, hammering crude approximations of broken parts out of scrap metal and piecing together electrical lines with barbed wire. He never missed a day of work, he says, not even during the worst of the fighting, when the mujahedin stood off against the Soviets in the soaring cliffs just above the powerhouse. “The village still needed electricity,” he says simply.

What better way to prove that the Americans were in Afghanistan to help than to resuscitate the failing power generators? So in 2002, USAid returned to Kajaki with a $128 million project that would repair the damage, install the third turbine and provide enough power to light 1.7 million Afghan homes – about a quarter of the population. The lack of electricity throughout Afghanistan has been a source of constant frustration. Industries are forced to generate their own power, cutting into payrolls; this means they can’t pay the kinds of salaries that could keep young men away from the Taliban or the opium trade. “Without the Kajaki power station,” I wrote, “southern Afghanistan cannot escape the quicksand of a drug-funded insurgency.” USAid’s Mark Ward told me then that the dam was a “critical element in our support for Afghanistan because it will provide the electricity to drive private-sector growth in Helmand and Kandahar.” The Kajaki Dam was the US’s star project in Afghanistan.

A few months after I left Kajaki, the British troops finally got the turbine through one of the most hostile swaths of Afghanistan, leaving 100 insurgents dead, but no British casualties. It was a risky undertaking and a phenomenal success. It was only a matter of months, we all thought, before Kandahar and the rest of southern Afghanistan would be enjoying 24-hour power.

There was only one hitch, writes Boone: “although the turbine was safely delivered, there was no plan to bring the 700 tonnes of cement required to install the turbine.” It’s a mistake that U.S. Marines and now trying to rectify, but even then it’s not entirely certain that the project could and would go forward. US Aid’s 2011 budget was halved from $4 billion to $2, and could be halved again next year if US Congress gets its way. Ken Yamashita, the USAid mission director in Kabul, told the Guardian that a “cost analysis and best-case scenario for implementation of work at Kajaki dam given funding and time restrictions” was currently being discussed. In other words, the project might be scrapped because no one really thought the whole thing through back when it seemed a grand idea to bring electricity to the people of Afghanistan.

It always amuses me to hear the convoluted conspiracy theories spun about the “real” U.S. intentions in Afghanistan and the region. If only the U.S. were capable of that kind of long term planning. Nope. All those dollars, all those men, we still can’t get Kajaki back together again.

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief, based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter at @arynebaker. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.