On an isolated Afghan dam, electricity comes at the price of blood

Set between the rocky cliffs bordering the Helmand River, which irrigates southern Afghanistan for more than a thousand kilometers, this dam has experienced many setbacks since its construction in the 1950s. A story that has followed the tumultuous course of that of the country.

The dam, which supplies electricity to the two major cities in the south, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, is at the heart of a small enclave of six square kilometers controlled by the government. For tens of kilometers around, the surroundings are in the hands of the Taliban.

As a result of an undoubtedly inevitable compromise, Kabul allows the Taliban to receive part of the current free of charge. And these, driven out of power at the end of 2001 but who hope to return to it with the departure of foreign forces by September 11, tax the civilian population consuming electricity.

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After this deadline, this kind of compromise could even be imitated elsewhere, for lack of agreement between the Afghan government and the leadership of the Taliban.

The tacit agreement, while to the advantage of the Taliban, does not prevent them from constantly attacking the troops protecting the Kajaki dam. Government forces and civilians stuck in the middle have already paid a heavy price for the structure’s survival.

This electricity costs too many lives“Abdul Razaq told AFP. He is the governor of Kajaki district but his power does not extend beyond his office and the few buildings surrounding the dam.

According to Mr. Razaq and workers at the plant, about 15 megawatts serve the Taliban districts of Kajaki, Sangin and Musa Qala, among the most dangerous in Afghanistan. They “collect 300 million Afghanis (3.1 M EUR) per month“by taxing electricity,” says the governor.

It is not our choice, but how can we deny them electricity? There are civilians, it’s their right“, explains Ghulam Raza, an executive of 77 Construction, the Turkish company which is preparing to increase the capacity of the dam from around 50 to 150 megawatts, by adding three turbines.

– A crazy project –

The rest goes to the government, which has increased hydropower projects in recent years to improve the situation of a country far from being self-sufficient and having to import electricity from its neighbors.

About 40% of the country is connected to the electricity grid, but power is sometimes only available for one to two hours a day. The situation is not much better in the big cities, including in Kabul where the cuts are daily.

Built by an American company in the 1950s to control the flow of the river and irrigate, the Kajaki dam was doubled with two turbines in 1975 by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), before being abandoned four years later during the Soviet invasion.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the Americans restarted the roadblock. But they failed to install a third turbine, before withdrawing from a project that seemed increasingly insane and cost them tens of millions of dollars.

Kabul took charge of him in 2013 and called 77 Construction to the rescue. The Turkish company managed to install the third turbine and has been working since 2019 on the construction of a second plant with three additional turbines, expected in 2022.

In front of this idyllic setting, the turquoise waters of the river, rocked by the song of the seagulls, it is easy to forget the amount of effort required for this site and the risks involved.

We are totally dependent on helicopters … Even a tomato we cannot bring it without“, recalls Adel Kiayani, an executive of 77 Construction, however. Hundreds of tons of materials must also be transported by truck through the Taliban areas.

If the Turkish company employees arrive by helicopter, those of the government, from Kajaki, must cross the front line to come to the roadblock from their villages located in Taliban territory. For this, the authorization of both camps is required.

– ‘The Taliban are happy’ –

I got a piece of paper from the Taliban and a government ID card“says Mohammad Akbar, who ran the irrigation business under the Taliban government in the 1990s.

Mohammad Daud, a mechanic, walks this route every week. “Before, it took ten minutes, but because of the insecurity, today it lasts four hours“, he regrets.”I’m very scared (…) Last year, a colleague was killed and four injured“.

Sardar Mohammad must also cross the front line to repair lines damaged by the fighting. He warns both camps in advance, but this precaution is not always enough. He lost a colleague, killed by Afghan forces. “They shot from this outpost“, he describes, pointing to a hill.

In his village, Sardar pays the Taliban 5 dollars (4.2 euros) a month for electricity to run his air conditioner or irrigate his fields. Among the insurgents, the poorest inhabitants receive the same amount as the others, but for free.

The Taliban are very happy. They like 77 and the projects because they benefit the whole people“, says Adel Badloon, a logistics officer.

However, the Taliban have left no respite for the Afghan army and the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), the national security company. The journey from the dam to the outposts is most often done on foot. “If you go 10 meters from the path they will shoot you“, warned the army commander in Kajaki, Dost Nazar Andarabi.

In a post, perched on the heights, the soldiers observe through binoculars the Taliban territories, which extend as far as the eye can see. You can see the insurgents riding motorcycles, children playing football, farmers cultivating their fields …

Taliban disguise themselves and hide among civilians to try to get here“Says Mohammad Saleem Nasseri, a soldier. The place looks peaceful, but after dark the Taliban start shooting at a nearby post.

– Ghost village –

Anyone who ventures into an open area near the front is at risk of being hit by their shots. In another post, Abdul Razeq, commander for the APPF, points to the place where two months earlier his brother-in-law “was killed by snipers“.

This same gesture keeps coming back to Kajaki. The index finger is held out to show the place where a colleague, a relative, sometimes a child, has died.

Between the dam and the front line, spreads out Tange, a large market destroyed by the fighting. Among the rubble of the clay stores reigns a heavy silence. Signs of life are rare: a group of children here, a few goats there. No more than thirty families live in this ghost village.

Only four or five stores are still open, including a bakery which supplies the army with bread. Flour arrives by helicopter, as do pens, shampoos, energy drinks … But basic products, oil and rice in particular, are lacking.

Sometimes we don’t have to eat for two or three days“, says Kamal, a former police officer wounded in combat.”When a child is sick he dies because we have no medicine or a doctor“, laments the old man, who thus lost a grandson.

His sick wife was transported in a wheelbarrow to the Taliban areas for treatment in Lashkar Gah. Men, on the other hand, have no chance of surviving crossing the front line. Naveed Armhad, 12, lost his father, who was shot and killed. “Because of transport problems he died here“, said Kamal.

We wonder why they did not flee this hell. “We continue to hope that the situation improves (…), but it gets worse and worse“Replies Agha Lala, the baker. In Kajaki, work on the dam is progressing. But the blood continues to flow and only the electricity moves safely.


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