Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Helmand Residents Turn On the Lights

Tired of waiting for the government to help them, some Helmand residents are making their own electricity.
By Zainullah Stanekzai
As night falls in Nad Ali district, a humming sound can be heard in the air. Small turbines fixed in local canals work throughout the evening, providing light and warmth to village homes.

The people generating their own hydroelectric power have provided the equipment and labour themselves, but complain the government is trying to tax them.

Helmand is comparatively well-off when it comes to energy, with the powerful Kajaki hydroelectric station theoretically capable of providing enough power for neighbouring Kandahar as well.

The United States is funding a major reconstruction of the dam and power station, a project that will ultimately cost up to 500 million US dollars.

But the Taleban have extended their reach into Kajaki, and the resulting battles with Afghan government and foreign forces have derailed the work. In addition, power lines through troubled districts such as Sangin are often cut either by the Taleban or by local residents, causing power outages throughout the province.

Generators in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah provide electricity whenever the government has enough fuel to run them, but the city often goes without power. Even the state media cannot always command enough electricity to keep television and radio on the air.

According to the deputy head of Helmand’s power department, Engineer Mohammad Nabi, the Kajaki dam now produces 20 megawatts of power, about half of which goes to Kandahar. The rest goes to Helmand, with half for the capital Lashkar Gah and the rest distributed around the province.

This is woefully inadequate for the province’s needs, he added.

“The Kajaki dam cannot produce more than 20 megawatts because the equipment is old and damaged,” said Nabi. “Lashkar Gah alone needs 25 megawatts.”

The result is that many districts are left in the dark.

“We can’t supply power to every corner of Helmand,” said Nabi.

Enterprising residents of Nad Ali, a rural district adjacent to Lashkar Gah, have taken matters into their own hands, installing small turbine systems in irrigation canals to generate power for their communities.

“The turbine has changed our lives,” said 35-year-old Mullah Atiqullah, a resident of Chan Jir, in Nad Ali. “We use it to run fans in the summer and lighting in the winter. Many residents also watch television.”

A turbine costs 320,000 Pakistani rupees – about 5,200 US dollars - and is shared among 20 families.

“This is progress,” said Atiqullah. “There are television antennas on the roof of every house and light bulbs in people’s windows.”

He complained that the government has been quick to cash in by levying arbitrary taxes.

“Government officials have taken money from me three times in the past year,” he said. “The first time it was 30,000 Pakistani rupees [490 dollars], then it was 10,000 and the last time it was 3,000. I don’t know what this money is for.”

The Pakistani currency is commonly used in Helmand in place of the afghani.

Engineer Faizullah, head of the power department, denied that his officials were taking money. Moreover, he told IWPR that he supported the residents’ initiative in setting up their own mini-power-stations.

“We do not prohibit the installation of turbines,” he said. “We do not take money from people for this. A number of turbines are registered with us. We are happy that people can provide their own electricity.”

About 41 private turbines have been set up in Nad Ali and Marjaa districts, providing electricity to about 1,000 homes. Over the past three years, more and more residents have been installing their own turbines, and now the trend is reaching even the remotest areas of Helmand.

The technology is not complicated, said Hayatullah, who makes money by helping people install the generating systems.

“Setting up is easy,” he said. “You just put the turbine where the water current is strong. The water turns the blades, and they turn the wheel which pulls the belt which runs the engine. That produces electricity.”

Hayatullah said that he charges between 15,000 and 75,000 rupees for each installation job.

Mohammad Saleem, from Nad Ali district, also makes a good living from do-it-yourself turbines.

“I earn about 17,000 afghani [350 dollars] monthly, and I provide power to 35 homes,” he said.

But residents complain that officials are getting in the way of their cottage industry.

“The government does not help us, but the police take money from us,” complained Hajji Meera Jan, whose village has just acquired its own turbine generator. “We have to pay them between 20,000 and 30,000 rupees a year.”

Najmuddin, 25, from Nad Ali, wanted to set up a turbine in a local canal, but the irrigation department demanded that he pay them 30,000 rupees. In order to avoid the fee, he tried to complete the project under cover of darkness.

“The police caught me during a midnight patrol and fined me 10,000 rupees,” he said. “The next day, I finally paid the irrigation department and they let me resume work. But every time the police have a change of commanders, we have to stop until we have paid them again.”

Zainullah Stanekzai is a freelance reporter in Helmand province.

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