Cuts to the US government’s Afghanistan development programme have put in doubt the future of a 220-tonne hydroelectric generator that British forces hauled across the desert of Helmand more than three years ago.
The September 2008 operation to sneak the heavy machinery across 100 miles of hostile territory in northern Helmand to the Kajaki dam was acclaimed by the British army as one the most daring operations of its kind since the second world war.
The operation, in which at least 100 insurgents were killed, was also touted as a turning point in the battle to win hearts and minds in southern Afghanistan by bringing electricity to the region.
In adding a third turbine to the hydroelectric station at Kajaki, one of the most delayed aid projects in history would finally be completed. US engineers constructed a power plant in the 1970s with two turbines but left a space for a third.
Three years after the British delivered it, the £3m turbine remains packed up and its future in doubt as the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) ponders whether installing it makes financial or strategic sense.
With the USAid budget slashed from $4bn in 2010 to $2bn this year, and the US Congress calling for further reductions, the US military and USAid are currently discussing what it describes as a “cost analysis and best-case scenario for implementation of work at Kajaki dam given funding and time restrictions”.
Options include further delaying the turbine installation and instead refurbishing power lines, substations and the existing turbines.
“Money is always an issue,” said Ken Yamashita, the USAid mission director in Kabul. “Because of things like security and costs have gone up. What we are looking at very carefully is see how we can get the most economic solution.”
Military sources in the capital say the delay has alarmed John Allen, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, who wants to see progress on a project that has long been regarded as a key part of the campaign.
Nato commanders are particularly exasperated because of the efforts made in recent months by the US marine corps to correct one of the blunders of the 2008 British operation: that although the turbine was safely delivered, there was no plan to bring the 700 tonnes of cement required to install the turbine.
Route 611 to Kajaki running from Sangin, the heart of the Helmand insurgency, was far too dangerous and USAid’s contractors refused to complete the job.
In October the marines finally carried out operations to clear insurgents from the villages along the road. In theory, all that now needs to happen is for the road to be hardened to withstand heavy trucks.
Yamashita said doing everything that Kajaki requires – new transmission lines, substations and the new turbine – could still happen, but “it is unrealistic to think that to do so in a sustainable manner can be in done in the short term in a few years”.
The needs of Kajaki also have to be balanced against the need for electricity all over the country, and other infrastructure projects.
“So if we look at that then it becomes a question of prioritising, is it Kajaki over something else in the north in the east and so one and so forth? That’s part of the difficult conversation,” said Yamashita.
Although the third turbine would raise the output of the dam from 32 megawatt to 48, even that is not a huge amount of power for a region enjoying fast economic growth.
He said even with three turbines, the plant would not meet the surging electricity demand from the two key regional cities of Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, which is currently relying for much of its electricity needs on giant diesel generators provided by the US army, which are hugely expensive to operate.
“[The Kajaki dam] is important and necessary for the valley,” he said. “It will not be sufficient to meet all of Kandahar’s needs.”Comments (0)