Electricity Woes A Way Of Life In Afghanistan

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Vendors sell their wares at a bazaar in Kabul, Afghanistan i

Vendors sell their wares at a bazaar in Kabul in September 2007. Despite heavy foreign investment in power plants and electrical lines, most Afghans still have no access to power, including most residents of Kabul, the capital. Rafiq Maqbool/AP/File hide caption

itoggle caption Rafiq Maqbool/AP/File
Vendors sell their wares at a bazaar in Kabul, Afghanistan

Vendors sell their wares at a bazaar in Kabul in September 2007. Despite heavy foreign investment in power plants and electrical lines, most Afghans still have no access to power, including most residents of Kabul, the capital.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP/File
A power plant worker cuts old power lines in Kabul i

A power plant worker cuts old power lines to improve the electricity in a residential neighborhood in Kabul in November 2006. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
A power plant worker cuts old power lines in Kabul

A power plant worker cuts old power lines to improve the electricity in a residential neighborhood in Kabul in November 2006.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Reporters in war zones face many challenges — such as dodging bullets and kidnappers, or going days without sleep or a shower.

But shoveling dirt into a gaping hole on one's street? That's not usually on the list.

But that's exactly what my staff and I found ourselves doing recently. One of our neighbors had dug the hole so we could reach a main power line feeding our homes and offices that had shorted three days earlier.

And a little red generator that I use during the frequent power outages was about to blow from too much use.

In The Dark

Despite heavy foreign investment in power plants and electrical lines — including more than $1 billion allocated by the United States — most Afghans still have no access to power, including most residents of the capital, Kabul.

In the West, a burned out power main is something municipal workers replace. But in Kabul, where hefty bribes and an upscale address are often prerequisites for at least some daily electricity, it's left up to customers to make repairs.

Fawad Siddiqi works a couple of doors down from NPR.

"Afghanistan is incapable of providing services to its people. No government workers do their jobs here. Thankfully, a neighbor got the ball rolling, paying for the new cable and for the workers," he said.

Even those workers failed to stay long enough to seal the new cable that already has holes in it — nor did they repair the street. That was left to NPR.

A Homemade Fix

My guard, Hafiz, boiled tar on a tiny propane stove. Then he poured the sizzling concoction onto the cable. The result was not pretty.

But two months later, the cable still works. And these days, our neighborhood is enjoying round-the-clock electricity for the first time.

Ismail Khan, Afghanistan's minister of energy and water, says additional power is being supplied to Kabul as a result of a deal signed with Uzbekistan to the north, as well as heavy spring rains that filled the reservoirs used to generate hydroelectric energy.

He adds that some $200 million in improvements to energy-related infrastructure also help.

Yet it turns out, I'm among a minority of Kabul residents who are getting 24-hour electricity.

Stealing The Power

Peter Argo is the deputy director of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan, which is heavily involved in improving power systems here.

He explains that Kabul's distribution company was set up 30 years ago for a population of only about 1 million.

"Now we are at about 4.5 million, if you believe all the reports that we get. There is a tremendous unmet need," Argo says.

And he says there are also a tremendous number of poachers, who run illegal wires to their homes and businesses.

"Right now, the estimates are that 60 percent of the power that comes into Kabul is unaccounted for. They can't bill for it. They can't account for it," he says.

Argo says major fixes are in the works to address Kabul's electricity woes, but he adds it may take another two or three years.

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