Capital without power

Published March 1, 2016

AFTER more than three weeks in the dark power has finally returned to Kabul.

The source of the power cuts and blackouts which left the city of more than five million residents without reliable electricity for nearly a month first began 221 kilometres away, in the northern province of Baghlan.

Afghan National Security Forces have been battling the Taliban there for months now. The ongoing clashes led to the downing and damage of at least three power pylons.

Also read: Afghan officials hope to restore Kabul power within days

Officials blamed the Taliban for the downing of the pylons that cut 60 per cent of the Afghan capital’s power.

However, the group denies those claims.

“The Mujahideen … have not destroyed electricity towers in any area and neither do they consider it beneficial for jihad and our people … there are many pylons in Mujahideen-controlled areas running all the way up to Kabul which have never been touched,” a Taliban statement read.

The Feb 2 statement went on to say: “If any technical team seeks to restore electricity pylons destroyed … Mujahideen will not only not create problems but will even do their utmost to provide security.”

Though it is not yet clear exactly who was responsible for the downed pylons, the blackouts – which began on Jan 27 – are yet another reminder of the precarious security situation in the nation, especially in the north, where the Taliban have been focusing on the bulk of their efforts for nearly a year now.

Ahmad Zia Massoud, President Ashraf Ghani’s Special Representative on Reform and Good Governance, highlighted this issue when he visited the northern province of Takhar earlier this month.

“Now you see [the Taliban] have hit the power pylons … We [the government] do not have the ability to tackle them and it is 12 days that Kabul has no power,” Massoud said during his Feb 10 address.

During the blackouts, the streets of the Afghan capital were filled with the constant buzz of hundreds of gas generators.

Though the city’s residents lamented the lack of power, the blackouts led to swift business for generator sellers.

“Business was booming, we went from selling a handful of generators a day to 10, 20 even 30 at a time,” said Hamed, whose family owns the Haji Sharafuddin store in west Kabul.

The 19-year-old said everyone from families to bread sellers and proprietors of the city’s multi-storey malls and restaurants have come to his family’s store to buy generators ranging in price from 3,000 Afghanis ($44) to 45,000 Afghanis ($653).

Hamed brushes off conspiracies by angry residents that a “mafia” of gas and generator sellers was colluding with the government to delay the repair of the pylons.

“That’s ridiculous. We have homes too, why would anyone be happy to live in darkness?”

The weeks-long boom in the generator business also highlighted another of the Kabul government’s shortcomings, the ability to provide even basic services to the nation’s residents.

Mina Sharifi, an Afghan-Canadian who produces a children’s television programme on one of the nation’s private broadcasters, said the blackouts were another reminder of the challenges still facing the West-backed government more than 15 years after the US-led invasion.

“It’s hard to stay positive when three months of your salary goes to the government and then you go weeks without power.”

The capital has been without a mayor for more than a year-and-a-half now, a fact residents blame on infighting within the government itself.

Echoing a comment made by dozens of Kabulis, Sharifi said the lack of consistent government comment on the electricity situation led many to believe the unity government was simply ignoring the issue.

The city’s residents – accustomed to some scheduled blackouts during the cold winter months – were most angered by the randomness of the power cycles, which seemed to lack a coherent schedule.

“Some update, saying: ‘there will be power from this time to this time in this area,’ or show of concern would have been nice. Instead we were all left in the dark wondering when the power would be back, and for how long.”

In the middle of the blackout, a group of civil society activists staged a protest criticising the government’s inability to provide power in a timely manner.

The protesters, with oil lamps in hand, held signs reading: “Kabul, the only capital without power.”

Many Afghans also took advantage of the intermittent power to express their anger online.

“Govt failed to restore Kabul’s electricity in more than a month; that is how much we should believe ‘promises’ for stability & development,” tweeted Mohammad Modaser, a Kabul resident.

Mohammad Daud Amin, another Kabul resident, echoed the sentiment in a tweet of his own.

“No water supply no electricity in #Kabul. Achievements of NUG since came to power.”

One official speaking on condition of anonymity said consistent access to electricity has indeed been a priority for the current administration.

“They understand how important electricity is to everything from business to security, that’s why the president is working to make the nation’s dams fully functional, so we no longer have to rely on external energy sources.”

The downed pylons connected to hydroelectric generators in Uzbekistan, where Afghanistan gets most of its electricity. Like the electricity, the generators Hamed’s family and other stores sold were also imported goods, mainly from China.

With an economy in decline, and more than nine million Afghans living on less than a dollar per day, Hamed said many families and small businesses were forced to buy “second-rate”, less powerful generators at a cost of approximately $40.

Azim, who works in a bread bakery in Shahr-e-Now, the commercial capital of the city, said the bakery uses their small Chinese-made generator sparingly, mainly for light in the evening hours, in order to keep costs down.

“We can barely pay our rent – 20,000 Afghanis – as it is.”

According to state-owned utility company, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat, the weeks-long power cuts led to $2.5 million in extra expenditures as the company was forced to rely on diesel-run generators in order to provide power to the city.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2016

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