KAJAKI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - British forces may be thrilled that they have managed to deliver a 200-tonne turbine to a remote dam in the heart of Taliban territory, but the real challenges of the project lie ahead.
While it’s undoubtedly a logistical and security achievement to bring such a huge piece of machinery 160 km (100 miles) through militant strongholds, it hasn’t yet gone anywhere towards improving Afghanistan’s dire infrastructure and economy.
It will take many months before other pieces of equipment such as transformers and a base station are in place, and possibly years more before transmission lines capable of delivering the extra power are up across southern Afghanistan.
The best estimate of British military engineers is that it will be at least two years before the new turbine is functioning and power is being distributed, a long time to wait for Afghans already frustrated at the slow rate of development.
And in that time, the Taliban are expected to do everything they can to disrupt work at Kajaki’s hydroelectric plant, and to threaten those eventually employed to install power lines across the vast desert reaches of southern Helmand province.
“It’s going to take a lot more investment and considerably more time and energy from the international community,” Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said after the turbine was delivered on Tuesday.
“If we’re not firm in our commitment, that will resonate negatively with the Afghan civilian population, who will therefore continue to hedge their bets,” he said, referring to the potential of Afghans to succumb to Taliban influence.
The Kajaki power station, built with funding from the U.S. development agency USAID in 1975, currently has only one working turbine that produces 16 MegaWatts of power, although sometimes it is cranked up to 18 MW, exceeding its capacity.
A second turbine broke down six months ago and needs spare parts, which are due to be delivered soon. Once those are installed, which is expected to happen some time in the next five months, it will also be capable of producing 16 MW.
And then there is the newly delivered turbine, a Chinese-built machine requiring Chinese engineers that will be capable of pumping out a maximum of 18.9 MW.
Overseeing the project is a 65-year-old, chain-smoking Vietnam veteran from Texas known as “Kajaki George”, who has worked at the plant since 2004 and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
An experienced power station engineer, George Wilder is convinced he can have all three turbines working by July 2009, even though he admits the power cables would still not likely be in place, so the gains would be limited.
His concerns are more that the Chinese turbine might not be very good, and that not enough is being done to hit the Taliban, who he says make money from the power station, both by collecting fees from Afghans for the power they use, and because some water is used to irrigate opium poppy fields.
“They make money from the dam, they charge for the power,” said Wilder, who wears a gold-and-diamond ring of Texas on his right hand. “When there’s more power, they could make more money. It’s possible. It’s something they could do.”
In theory, though, the power station could triple its output in the next two years, benefiting around 1.8 million people in southern Afghanistan desperate for power and light.
Together with ambitious USAID plans to install four more turbines at Kajaki in the next decade, each capable of producing 25 MW, there could be a wholesale transformation of the southern Afghanistan power grid. But very serious challenges remain.
The overriding concern is security. Carleton-Smith concedes that once the 3,000 British troops who escorted the turbine convoy pull back, the territory will be back in Taliban hands. Britain just doesn’t have enough troops to hold so much land.
Then there are the 43 Afghan engineers and assistants employed at the power station, who live nearby and face constant threats from the Taliban in nearby villages. Not only is their safety a problem, but they must learn to communicate and work with a team of Chinese engineers who recently arrived on site.
There’s also the question of Iran. Under a contract signed in 1972, Afghanistan must supply Iran with a specific volume of water per second, most of which comes from the Kajaki reservoir.
As more turbines come on line, more water will be used up, draining the reservoir and potentially jeopardising that deal.
Kajaki George is not so worried. He plans to be out of Afghanistan by the end of next year, when his contract is up. In the meantime, Britain and its NATO allies can celebrate the fact they have at least taken a step on the development road.
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Paul Tait