Ravaged by decades of violent conflicts, Afghanistan today finds itself treading a difficult path towards sustainable and effective reconstruction and redevelopment. In its attempt to rebuild the country on all fronts, Afghanistan recognizes that availability of sufficient power and its equitable distribution is both a goal in itself and the means to achieve further economic growth and social-cultural parity within the country.
As the country struggles to securing power for and power to all in the post-draw-down period, this article assesses its present power situation, the regional and bilateral dynamics that animate it, and the internal contests for power that were witnessed in the year gone by.
Current Power Situation: Power Generation Potential and Imports
Despite its potential to generate power, Afghanistan imports 76.26 percent of the power it uses, from Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Sustainability and effectiveness of the projects remains low in priority, as a result of which two in three Afghans continue to remain without power. Issues relating to free-loading have added to the troubles of this power-starved nation.
Afghanistan has the potential to generate 314,500 MW of electricity from renewable sources. Solar energy, which could be the biggest source among all, can generate 222,000 MW of electricity. Around 67,000 MW of can come from wind turbines, with another 23,000 MW of electricity added to the lot by harnessing hydro-power. Much of what Afghanistan can harness on its own lies unused due to domestic insecurity. However, since 2001, some progress has been reported. In 2002, less than 15 per cent of Kabul residents had power. Today, 70 per cent of the citizens of the capital are connected to the power grid or have access to electricity. It is expected that by the end of 2017, a 200 MW gas-fired power plant in Sheberghan (in Jowzjan province), a new transmission line from Pul-e Khumri to Kabul to carry 1,000 MW and a 500 kV substation in Arghandi, just outside Kabul will add to the existing figures.
Powering Afghanistan, Empowering Afghanistan? Bilaterally Sponsored Dam Construction and Regional Power Grids – -Damming Afghanistan
Assigned priority in Afghanistan’s National Development Strategy (ANDS), dam construction and through that generation of power and water-resource management has featured prominently in policies and actions undertaken by the governments in Afghanistan since 2001.
In this regard, the rebuilding and re-operationalization of the Salma Dam in the Herat province, with Indian support, has become a celebrated development. The inauguration of the Salma Dam by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was subsequently awarded the highest civilian honor – Amir Amanullah Khan Award – by Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, demonstrated among other things the thawing of ice that had formed following the (disillusioned) pursuit of Pakistan by the latter. Also, despite the many reported attempts of sabotage, the success met by the dam has been counted among one of the effective, low-budget tangible contributions that have been made to re-construct Afghanistan’s economy.
Apart from Salma Dam, the government of Afghanistan is now looking to make its other dams operational with international and bilateral help. To this effect, one of the major deals to have come through in 2016 was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Energy and Water of Afghanistan and a Turkish company to re-operationalize the Kajaki dam in the turbulent province of Helmand. Once in operation, it is expected that this dam will produce 151 MW of energy against the current 51 MW.
In addition to the above-mentioned installations, irrigation and power-producing dams including Kokcha, Gambiri and Kama are expected to be re-developed soon.
‘Round-About’ of Regional Power Grids and Rivalries
According to reports, of the 1,150 MW of electricity consumed in the country, 250 MW is generated domestically. According to Afghanistan Analyst Network (AAN), the national power grid operates in nine different ‘islands’/grids depending on power supply sources. This means that different regions are supplied by different sources, and due to technical limitations these regions are not interconnected or synchronized. For instance, Turkmenistan’s network supplies power to the Northern provinces of Faryab, Jowzjan and Sar-e-Pol and, on a separate network, partly to Herat. While Uzbekistan supplies Parwan, Samangan and partly Kabul. A transmission line from Turkmenistan, bringing additional 300 MW initially and 500 MW later is also expected to come up by 2018.
Two transnational power systems, TUTAP and CASA-1000 are also at various stages of development. The World Bank-funded Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project or CASA-1000 is expected to transfer 1300 MW of electricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The multilateral Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Electricity Project or TUTAP would import electricity from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. These projects would not only help meet Afghanistan’s need for electricity but it would also allow it to generate revenue in the form of transit fee.
However, even as Afghanistan hopes to emerge as a ‘round-about’ of power trade connecting Central and South Asia, its domestic hydro-power resources – rivers – have placed it in conflicts with Iran and Pakistan particularly.
About 90% of Afghanistan’s rivers are shared by it with its two neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, which have laid historical (and legal) claims over their usage. Despite the acrimony that surrounds these rivers, or perhaps because of it, Afghanistan has just one treaty signed with Iran over the usage of the river-basin of Helmand River. Even this, according to Afghanistan, has been poorly implemented. Attempts at arriving at water-sharing agreements with Pakistan, with which it shares seven rivers, have failed variously.
Since the rivers in contention (Kabul, Kunar and Helmand) originate in Afghanistan with their respective distributaries feeding into other major river-systems of Pakistan and Iran, the latter two countries are wary of the developments that can affect the share and quality of water they receive. Reports suggest that deliberate attempts have been made by both to impede the damming of rivers running through Afghanistan on which they stake claims. These have included sabotage of infrastructure and deliberate loss of human lives.
Purportedly, where Pakistan had been involved in the death of Khan Wali, who was the de-facto in-charge of the Machalgho Dam in Paktia province, Iran’s security forces have been accused of firing at people on the Afghan side of the Hari Rud River for trying to access its water. Interestingly, both Iran and Pakistan are apprehensive about Afghanistan becoming a ‘hydro-hegemon’ by damming the rivers that feed their population too. For a country that had been (and, perhaps still is) reduced to a pawn in the ‘regional great-games’, it is quite peculiar to see Afghanistan being perceived as a threat by two of these very ‘players’.
Achieving Parity in Power Within
Apart from inter-nation rivalries over power, power generation and distribution has become a sticking political, economic and cultural issue within Afghanistan. A case in point is the Hazara-led movement for ‘power parity’- the Enlightenment Movement. Called Junbesh-i-Roshni (Movement of Light), this movement was galvanized around a specific demand but with a larger political agenda, and which is to secure parity in power. The immediate reason that led to this movement was what is believed to be a change in the route of TUTAP transmission lines passing through Afghanistan.
The movement claims that the network, which was ‘originally’ planned to pass through the Hazara-populated province of Bamyan, has been re-routed. Bypassing their locales, it is the Salang Pass that the transmission lines will now pass through. It is interesting to note that Salang Pass and the areas around it are heavily populated by Pashtuns, and which has convinced the protesting Hazaras that the ‘real’ reason behind the re-routing has been motivated more by ethnic prejudices than economics. They have alleged that the present government, which is led by a Pashtun President, has decided to re-route the transmission line to placate the Pathan community in Afghanistan. Rebutting these claims, National Unity Government (NUG) has steadfastly maintained that the decision to re-route, if any, was taken by the government(s) before it. And, that the Salang Pass route is more economically feasible.
While the country remains divided over what the original plan was like and whose idea it was to change it, what this movement has brought to the fore at once is the continuing political repression of the Hazara community and the political agency they are now seeking in a democratic Afghanistan.
Having been persecuted for ages, the current democratic order in Afghanistan, notwithstanding its evident shortcomings, is providing Hazaras avenues to mobilize their community more effectively than ever to get their political, economic and cultural desires fulfilled. The Enlightenment Movement, which is a broader struggle to achieve (political, social, economic) power parity by demanding equitable distribution of power, has become an instance which at once has brought to light the continuous disenfranchisement of the Hazara community and their deliberate targeting (eg ISIS attack on their rally), and their democratic battle against such prejudices.
Power for and power to all
For a power deficit country like Afghanistan, power sufficiency and power parity are both a necessity and an aspiration. Where the availability of adequate power is bound to assist in the economic development of the country, achievement of equitable distribution of power throughout the country can help in addressing some of the fundamental political and cultural grievances that have been exploited by internal and external agents alike for decades.
Where the successful construction and operationalization of Salma Dam and the other such partnerships (eg TAPI) demonstrate that Afghanistan is proceeding on the path of reconstruction, the prevailing environment of insecurity, nepotism and corruption have made the tough going tougher. Various reports of attempted and actual sabotage to developmental projects have been reported. Added to which, continuous attacks on ethnic minorities and allegations of political, economic and cultural biases within the government and its structures are widening the trust deficit between the Afghan state and its people.
The need of the hour for Afghanistan is to ensure and promote governmental transparency and accountability. A deeper and greater sense of trust in the government is likely to have a beneficial impact on the security environment of Afghanistan as it can encourage people to develop a sense of ownership and collective interest in ensuring the stability of the country and that of the economic projects it is undertaking.