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Afghans grapple with blackouts

The problem points up the slow progress in rebuilding the war-torn country and is a source of resentment against the government.

January 20, 2008|Jason Straziuso | Associated Press

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Gul Hussein was standing under a pale street lamp in a poor section of east Kabul when the entire neighborhood went black.

"As you can see, it is dark everywhere," said Hussein, 62, adding that his family would light a costly kerosene lamp for dinner that evening. "Some of our neighbors are using candles, but candles are expensive too."

More than six years after the fall of the Taliban -- and despite hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid -- dinner by candlelight remains common in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Nationwide, only 6% of Afghans have electricity, the Asian Development Bank says.

The electricity shortage underscores the slow progress in rebuilding the war-torn country. It also worsens other problems: Old factories sit idle, and new ones are not built. Produce withers without refrigeration. Dark, cold homes foster resentment against the government.

In Kabul, power dwindles after the region's hydroelectric dams dry up by midsummer. This fall, residents averaged only three hours of municipal electricity a day, typically from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Some neighborhoods didn't get any.

"That's a scary-sounding figure because it's pretty tiny," said Robin Phillips, the USAID director in Afghanistan. "So we're talking about the relatively poorer people in Kabul who have no access to electricity at this time of year."

Electricity was meager under the Taliban too, when Kabul residents had perhaps two hours a day in fall and winter. The supply has since increased, but not as fast as Kabul's population -- from fewer than 1 million people in the late 1990s to more than 4 million today.

Meanwhile, souring U.S. relations with Uzbekistan have delayed plans to import electricity from that country. Power is not expected to arrive in a significant way until late this year or mid-2009.

"Life takes power," said Jan Agha, 60, a handyman from west Kabul who recalled how the city had plentiful power during the 1980s Soviet occupation. "If you have electricity, life is good, but if there's no electricity, you go around like a blind man."

Some in Kabul do have electricity: the rich, powerful and well-connected.

Municipal workers -- under direction from the Ministry of Energy and Water -- funnel what power there is to politicians, warlords and embassies. Special lines run from substations to their homes, circumventing the power grid. International businesses pay local switch operators bribes of $200 to $1,000 a month for near-constant power, an electrical worker said. He requested anonymity for fear of losing his job.

If high-ranking government officials visit the substations, workers race to cut off the illegal connections. Large diesel generators, which businesses and wealthy homeowners own as a backup, rumble to life.

Ismail Khan, the country's energy and water minister, dismisses allegations of corruption as a "small problem."

"The important thing to talk about is that in six months all of these power problems will be solved, and everyone will have electricity 24 hours a day," he said, an optimistic prediction that relies on heavy rains next spring and quick work on the Uzbekistan line.

Colorful maps on the walls of Khan's office show existing and future power lines. There's a wall-mounted air conditioner -- a luxury in Afghanistan.

India, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new power lines -- including transmission towers installed last summer at 15,000 feet in the Hindu Kush mountains -- to import electricity from Uzbekistan.

Though the line from Kabul to the Uzbek border is in place, a 25-mile section in Uzbekistan has not been built. And the U.S. has little leverage to speed it up, said Rakesh Sood, the Indian ambassador here.

Initially, Uzbekistan supported the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, opening an air base to U.S. planes. But the Uzbek government no longer views America as a friend, especially in light of U.S. leaders' loud criticism of the country's human rights record after government-backed forces killed peaceful protesters in 2005.

Even when the Uzbek line is completed, Afghanistan can no longer expect the 300 megawatts originally envisioned, Sood said. That would have been more than the 190 megawatts Kabul has today and a significant boost to the nationwide total of 770 megawatts.

"We know we'll get significantly less. I wouldn't hazard a guess as to what it will be," Sood said. "At that time, the U.S.-Uzbek relationship was very high, and it has deteriorated substantially."

President Hamid Karzai, during a radio address to Afghans last fall, said he discussed with President Bush the country's need to produce its own electricity.

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