Restoring an Afghan Dam in a Taliban Stronghold

Kajaki dam power station i i

hide captionA $16 million project to rehabilitate the Kajaki dam and power station (shown here) is expected to bring electricity to 1 million households in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
Kajaki dam power station

A $16 million project to rehabilitate the Kajaki dam and power station (shown here) is expected to bring electricity to 1 million households in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
Map of Kajaki dam i i
Alice Kreit, NPR
Map of Kajaki dam
Alice Kreit, NPR
An aerial view of the Kajaki dam reservoir. i i

hide captionAn aerial view of the Kajaki dam reservoir.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
An aerial view of the Kajaki dam reservoir.

An aerial view of the Kajaki dam reservoir.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
10 Countries with the Least Access to Electricity i i

hide captionOnly 7 percent of Afghanistan's population has electricity. See how it ranks among the countries with the least access to electricity.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
10 Countries with the Least Access to Electricity

Only 7 percent of Afghanistan's population has electricity. See how it ranks among the countries with the least access to electricity.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
An Afghan police officer guards the Kajaki dam compound. i i

hide captionAn Afghan police officer guards the Kajaki dam compound. The Taliban is active in the surrounding area.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
An Afghan police officer guards the Kajaki dam compound.

An Afghan police officer guards the Kajaki dam compound. The Taliban is active in the surrounding area.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR

It has been nearly seven years since the Taliban regime fell in Afghanistan, but only 7 percent of the country's residents have access to government-provided electricity.

American contractors hope to change that next year, at least for more than 1 million households in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. Engineers there are trying to restore a half-century-old, U.S.-built dam and power plant in country that has become the heart of a Taliban insurgency.

Guerilla War Stifles Progress

Afghan experts say that if it were up to Mother Nature, their country would be aglow with electricity: There are plenty of waterways to power hydroelectric plants and wind to power turbines.

Yet little of this natural energy has been harnessed, despite millions of dollars in aid toward boosting the country's power supply. Even in the capital, Kabul, most residents get only a few hours of electricity every other day.

Lawmaker Raz Mohammed Fais, whose parliament committee deals with power issues, says the situation is frustrating.

"Lots of promises have been made. Yet nothing practical has been done to provide people with electricity," he says.

But Fais and others acknowledge that it is hard to build anything — let alone a power supply — while Afghanistan is mired in a guerrilla war.

Resurrection of Dam, Plant

A $16 million project to rehabilitate the Kajaki dam and power station in Helmand province is a case in point.

Modeled loosely after the Tennessee Valley Authority, the 330-foot dam and power plant served to showcase U.S. development in Afghanistan during the Cold War. The structures provided electrical power and helped irrigate tens of thousands of acres of farmland.

But they fell into disrepair after decades of war and neglect. By the time the U.S. Agency for International Development arrived at the compound five years ago, only one turbine could still be turned on. And it generated more vibration than electricity.

John Shepherd, one of the American engineers working on Kajaki, says they started repairing the power plant in December 2004.

"We rehabilitated the first turbine and brought it back online in October 2005 at full capacity, and then, due to the security situation, we weren't able to move forward with the other unit," Shepherd says.

That security situation is the Taliban insurgency. The group's fighters are plentiful in this part of Helmand.

Maj. Mike Shervington is the new commander of British troops protecting the Kajaki compound.

He says Kajaki is an "an extremely important target for [the Taliban] because of what we are providing for the people of Helmand here."

Shervington and others say the Taliban has targeted anyone who works on projects like Kajaki. The insurgent attacks have continued despite an influx of Western and Afghan troops into the region over the past year.

Security Issues Delay Project

The top Afghan engineer at Kajaki is a man named Rasoul. Born and raised in a village near Kajaki, he says he has worked at the power plant for 30 years.

Because of the constant gunfire, however, he has had to move his family to a safer area.

"First we moved to a village further away. That turned out to be unsafe as well, so I moved my wife and children to Kandahar," Rasoul recalls.

Even now, insurgents operate checkpoints on the main road leading in and out of the dam area.

The Taliban presence means that everything and everyone has to be flown into the compound by helicopter. Engineers say that increases the costs and adds to the workload, because heavy machinery has to be disassembled before it can be airlifted.

If that weren't enough, workers here say they also have to watch out for mines left over from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that occasionally wash up along the riverbanks.

Security issues have put the dam project about two years behind schedule. But Rasoul and Shepherd are confident that it will be completed.

At the power plant, the first thing on engineers' agenda is getting the second turbine working again by next spring. Some of its replacement parts sit in front of the lone, working turbine.

Nearby, a gaping hole descends about 60 feet. Shepherd says it is the space for a new, third turbine.

That turbine is expected to be up and running later next year.

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