IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Kabul wilts under power cuts

Because of a shortage of electricity, tens of thousands of Kabul households are enduring another sweltering summer without fans or refrigerators, and looking ahead to a high-altitude winter without hot water or heat.
Afghan bodybuilders are illuminated by window light while working out in a gym with no electricity in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the early morning of March 15.David Guttenfelder / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Neon palm trees and fountains flicker outside new wedding salons, and brightly lit boutiques line glass-walled shopping centers in the Afghan capital's commercial heart -- all powered by huge private generators that cost a fortune to operate.

But darkness falls swiftly on entire districts of the impoverished outskirts of Kabul that have no electricity. Here children trudge along alleys lugging gas cylinders to be refilled for cooking or car batteries to be charged so their families can watch an hour of television.

While officials are readying plans to import electricity over the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains from Central Asia by 2009, tens of thousands of Kabul households are enduring another sweltering summer without fans or refrigerators, and looking ahead to a high-altitude winter without hot water or heat.

"I hate it every time the generator runs out of fuel, because then the light goes off and the scorpions come out and walk on the floor near the children," said Raisa, 20, a clerk's wife and mother of three who lives in Karte Nau, a maze of adobe houses and dirt paths rising above the city. "We save up to buy one liter, and after an hour or so it's gone."

The energy crisis has focused growing anger at the government of President Hamid Karzai, who last year appointed a former militia leader and governor with no technical experience as minister of energy and water. Many Kabul residents say they do not understand why, nearly five years after the overthrow of Taliban rule, and with the influx of millions of dollars in foreign aid, the government cannot even light the capital.

Even in more affluent neighborhoods, city-supplied electricity has been reduced this year from about 23 hours a day to five hours every other night. Families cram all their cooking, washing and studying into short, frustrating stints under a couple of dim bulbs.

Officials here say the cause of the shortage is an antiquated urban infrastructure, damaged by years of war, that has failed to keep up with the power demands of a city population that has swelled from half a million when the Taliban were overthrown to nearly 4 million today.

This year, nature and technical problems have exacerbated the situation. A drought sharply lowered water levels in reservoirs behind two hydroelectric dams, and one of two huge gas turbines that provide power to the city broke down.

Relying on a single gas turbine and 25 costly diesel generators, for which the United States is providing $110 million worth of fuel, officials say they have had no choice but to severely ration electricity throughout the capital in the past six months.

‘Tough situation’
In the mountains north of Kabul, work is just beginning on overhead transmission lines that are to bring 150 megawatts of power from Central Asia. The $300 million project is being financed by the government of India and the Asian Development Bank. A second project, a natural gas power plant in northern Afghanistan to be built with U.S. aid, is still on the drawing boards.

"We have an extremely tough situation, and it will take another two years before those transmission lines are completed," said Gulla Jan Hairan, planning chief for the Ministry of Energy and Water. "People can't pump water to wash, students can't study. We are doing our best to fill the gap, but we are sure we will not be able to provide heat for all the people this winter, so we are asking other ministries to distribute coal and liquid gas to homes."

Authorities have tried to promote energy conservation, but they have had little success, in part because the fees for public electricity are so low. Domestic households pay a penny per kilowatt-hour for the first 600 kilowatts; commercial facilities pay about 10 times more.

Last month, the government proposed doubling fuel prices, with the goal of helping finance both the temporary power supply and long-term development. The political backlash was so intense that the idea was temporarily dropped.

"I remember before the civil war, we had power 24 hours a day. Now we can't even make tea or keep the clothes clean, and I have to send my daughter out for gas so we can cook dinner on a burner," said Faiz Murza, 62, a retired importer who lives in Kabul's Old City, a district of once-elegant homes ruined by war. "If Mr. Karzai had no power in his house for five days, what would he do?"

American aid officials here defended the government, saying Afghan authorities are working closely with foreign donors to develop a long-term, reliable power supply, which will cost a fraction of the current outlays for generator fuel.

"There is a full court press on, but there is a gap in the pipeline of power," said Leon S. Waskin, the U.S. Agency for International Development's mission director for Afghanistan. "The donors and the government are working hard and collaboratively to bring long-term power to Kabul. Everyone is working as fast as they can be reasonably expected to work."

Where did the money go?
Among residents, though, the power crisis has become fertile ground for jokes on radio dramas and call-in programs -- one story has it that a father beat his daughter for breaking a bulb that refused to turn on. It also has created a nightly cultural phenomenon in which thousands of Kabul families rush to charge batteries or buy generator fuel so they can watch the popular Indian-made TV drama "Tulsi" at 8 p.m.

In photocopy shops, proprietors save money by switching their generators off between each customer. In workshops along the main boulevard of the Old City, men squat among tangles of jury-rigged cables and small generators as they weld doors or fill punctured tires.

"Our generator is too heavy to carry to construction sites, and we are not allowed to operate in the fancy neighborhoods that have better power," said Mohammed Isaac, 24, who hand-fabricates metal door and window grills. "This is our homeland, so we can endure anything, but we wonder where all the foreign money went that was supposed to bring us power."

One form of enterprise that has flourished in the crisis is the neighborhood battery-chargers, who get about 70 cents a day per customer. In the morning, customers drop off their dead batteries, and in the evening, on the way home, they pick them up charged.

"If you turn on a color TV, it lasts a day. If you turn on a black-and-white TV, it lasts a week. If you turn on a single light bulb, it lasts a month," said Mohammed Shafiq, 35, a former army officer who now spends his days guarding a sidewalk array of batteries. "Look at all the money coming into this country," he said with disgust. "It all goes into certain pockets, while the rest of us are living in darkness."

Cooling breezes
Residents of Karte Nau, one of the city's poorest and darkest districts, live with a double daily insult. A row of new power poles and lines runs across their neighborhood, for which some families have paid up to $250 for a connection, but none has received electricity yet. When they peer down from their huts at night, they see a row of ornate new mansions beside the main boulevard, lit up like a holiday party.

Perhaps the only advantage of their hillside address, residents say, is the mountain air that brings cooling breezes on summer nights.

"You can see how we are living now, like a camp," said Mir Qalam, 37, a police officer and father of five whose house is a steep, winding climb up the Karte Nau paths. "We can't afford a generator, so we have to find other ways. We use firewood to boil water, we use hand fans to keep cool in the day, and at night we all sleep on the roof."