Restoring an Afghan Dam in a Taliban Stronghold Engineers in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province are trying to rehabilitate a half-century-old, American-built dam and power plant in what is the heart of Taliban country. Amid attacks and other security issues, progress is slow.

Restoring an Afghan Dam in a Taliban Stronghold

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

There are many basic services people in Afghanistan are forced to do without. One of them is electricity. Nearly seven years after the fall of the Taliban only seven percent of the country has access to government-provided power. And you can tell that by the humming sound all over town of private electric generators.

But American contractors are hoping to change that next year, at least for more than 1 million households in the southern part of Afghanistan. Engineers are trying to restore a half-century-old, American-built dam and power plant in what is the heart of Taliban country.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently visited the facility in southern Helmand province.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Afghan experts say that if it were up to Mother Nature, their country would be aglow with electricity.

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There is plenty of running water to power hydroelectric plants, like the spillway in the northern part of Helmand province.

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There's also wind to power turbines.

Yet little of this natural energy is harnessed. That despite millions of dollars in aid earmarked for building the country's power supply. Even in the capital, Kabul, most residents only get a few hours of electricity every other day.

Lawmaker Raz Mohammed Fais, whose parliament committee deals with power issues, says it's frustrating.

Mr. RAZ MOHAMMED FAIS (Afghanistan parliament power committee): (Through translator) Lots of promises have been made. Yet nothing practical has been done to provide people with electricity.

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

A $16 million project to rehabilitate the Kajaki Dam and power station is a case in point. Modeled loosely after the Tennessee Valley Authority, the 330-foot dam and power plant were showcases of American development in Afghanistan during the Cold War. They provided electrical power, as well as irrigated tens of thousands of acres of farmland.

But decades of war and neglect followed. 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.

Mr. JOHN SHEPHERD (Engineer): 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.

NELSON: The security situation he's referring to is the Taliban insurgency. The group's fighters are plentiful in this part of Helmand.

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

Major MIKE SHERVINGTON (Commander, British troops): I would say that is an extremely important target for them because of what we are providing for the people of Helmand here.

NELSON: He and others say the Taliban has targets anyone who works on projects like Kajaki. The attacks continue despite an influx of Western and Afghan troops into the region over the past year.

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

RASOUL (Top Afghan engineer): (Through translator) But I've had to move my family because of the constant gunfire. 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.

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

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That means everything and everyone has to be flown into this compound by helicopter. The engineers says it increases the costs and adds work, given heavy machinery has to be disassembled before it can be airlifted.

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NELSON: If that isn't enough, workers here say they also have to watch out for old Russian mines that occasionally wash up along the riverbanks.

The project is about two years behind schedule because of security issues. But Rasoul and Shepherd are confident they'll get it done.

Inside the plant, first on the agenda is getting the second turbine working again by next spring. Some of its replacement parts lie in front of the lone, working turbine. Nearby, a gaping hole descends some 60 feet. Shepherd says that's the space for a brand-new, third turbine. That one is expected to be up and running later in 2009.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, at the Kajaki Dam in Afghanistan.

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