The often still poor socio-economic situation rarely makes the headlines which are dominated by stories about attacks like the ones on Kabul Interconti hotel and Ahmad Wali Karzai. But it is a scandal that Mazar-e Sharif, one of Afghanistan’s major cities, still has one to three hours of electricity per day after ten years of the international involvement. And it is not the supply, the Afghan grid is still in tatters. While electricy supply is better now in Kabul, fluctuations in its current might be responsible for funny bills received by the cities inhabitants. Abdul Latif Sahak (Balkh) and Khan Mohammad Danishju (Kabul)* report.
1. Powers of Darkness in North Afghanistan
Although the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif enjoys a measure of stability and a conveniently-located source of electricity, residents say they are only getting a couple of hours of power a day.
Apart from making life more difficult in the summer heat, the power outages have led to fears of infection due to problems with keeping foodstuffs cool. Residents are angered that the massive amounts of aid money injected into Afghanistan has failed to improve electricity supplies, a basic building-block of economic development.
People in Mazar-e Sharif get between one and three hours of electricity every 24 hours. IWPR interviewed one man, Fereidun, who said he had an hour a day, but with a current so weak that it would not run his refrigerator. ‘You see, I can’t bear this hot weather even though I’m an adult. How can children bear it?’ Fereidun said, fanning himself as he sat under a tree in front of his house. ‘I use this fan on my children all night. Sometimes I even pass out. If there was electricity, I wouldn’t have these problems, as I own [an electric] fan and a refrigerator.’
Fereidun placed the blame squarely on local government, saying, ‘For God’s sake, every government official in the province has been working for the last ten years as if he inherited his post. If they can’t work, others must replace them.’
Industrialists in the city say they are cutting back production or closing down altogether because they cannot run their machines. Khwaja Amir described how he had stopped production at his plastic goods factory for the past three months. ‘I had to close my factory because of the power shortage, as using [diesel-powered] generators would have increased my prices so much that people wouldn’t have been able to afford my goods,’ he said.
Khwaja Amir said he had been forced to lay off his workforce of around 100 people. ‘This government doesn’t want to address unemployment… it doesn’t support domestic industries, yet it leaves the doors wide open to foreign-made products,’ he said.
Faqir Mohammad owns an ice factory and has found that demand is high enough for him to pay for generators and double his prices. ‘We’re using generators even though fuel is expensive,’ he said. ‘Although we aren’t making a big profit, we have to keep producing ice because the people need it so badly.
Sayed Taher Roshanzadah, head of the chamber of commerce for Balkh province, of which Mazar-e Sharif is the main urban centre, said dozens of factories producing goods, packaging fruit and making non-alcoholic drinks had folded, putting thousands of people out of work. ‘The electricity shortage has increased the prices of Afghan products. No one buys them, and when they don’t sell, the owner is forced to close his factory,’ he said.
Roshanzadah said the lack of power was an obstacle to future investment that would otherwise be forthcoming because of the relative security established in this part of Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, public health and environmental officials are warning that the electricity shortage is leading to a rise in the incidence of disease among children.
Paediatric specialist Dr Ahmad Forough said more and more children were being admitted to the Mazar-e Sharif hospital where he works, mainly for dehydration, diarrhoea, and food poisoning. ‘Many families use meals left over from the previous day, and the food becomes contaminated and leads to diseases when there are no refrigerators,’ he explained.
Gholam Nabi Khorami, director of environmental protection in Mazar-e Sharif, said the heavy use of diesel generators by industry, businesses and homeowners was causing alarming levels of pollution – another source of illness – as well as pumping out heat in an already hot part of the country.
Balkh is luckier than most provinces as it gets electricity imported from neighbouring Uzbekistan under a long-standing arrangement. In Mazar-e Sharif, therefore, the problem is not that there is no supply, but that the crumbling power distribution network cannot transmit current.
Officials say the grid can sustain a maximum of 20 megawatts, and needs to be upgraded to meet the total demand, put at 70 MW. Engineer Naser, head of the electricity department for Balkh province, said adequate levels of power were reaching local substations, but the 27-year-old city distribution network could not carry the current.
In 2008, with 23 million US dollars in World Bank funding, Afghanistan’s energy and water ministry contracted two companies, one Afghan and the other Indian, to completely replace the network in Mazar-e Sharif. The work has yet to be completed.
Engineer Naser said everything had ground to a halt because of a dispute over quality between the two contractors and a German firm brought in to supervise the project. Guillermo Siapno, an engineer heading up the supervisory work, confirmed the nature of the dispute, saying, ‘We will not allow the Afghan and Indian companies to continue with the work unless they meet a high standard.’
The Indian contractor, ATPS, refused requests for an interview, but the head of the Afghan company A-T-SL, Mohammad Zaher, blamed excessive bureaucracy and uncooperative local government officials. He said the German project inspectors did not raise concerns when 1,800 electricity poles and new lines were installed, and only complained about the quality later, meaning the work would have to be redone at great cost.
Meanwhile, the Afghan energy ministry had fined the two contractors two million dollars for failing to complete on time. ‘If things continue like this, we will be unable to complete the work,’ he added.
Power shortages and the associated problems are not unique to Balkh; every other province and even the capital Kabul have intermittent or very limited electricity.
Hydroelectric dams could provide an answer, but those that exist are decades old. Projects to build new schemes or restore old ones have been hampered by the ongoing Taleban insurgency, and – many believe – by neighbouring states reluctant to see reduced water levels in cross-border rivers.
2. Power-crazy in Kabul
‘Come and look at my bills – I’ve been charged 1.5 dollars for one period and 150 dollars for another,’ Mir Hussein said laughing. Mir Hussein had joined a queue outside the Pakhtany Bank in the Khair Khana district of the Afghan capital Kabul to pay his electricity bill, which these days is generated using a computerised system, rather than the old method of individual logbooks.
Since the change, many householders have found that their bills vary wildly, and complain that there is no way of verifying the actual levels of electricity they have used. ‘What system? What computer? What accountants?’ Mir Hussein asked.
Others standing in the queue for payment were angry and confused by what seemed like highly inflated billing. Discovering IWPR’s interest in their problems, they surrounded this reporter to tell their stories. ‘Hey brother, where are you press people?’ asked one man. ‘They’ve been skinning poor people.’
Khair Khana resident Nurullah said, ‘In the past 30 years, my electricity consumption never cost more than ten [US] dollars for a given [two-month] period, but since the new billing system was set up, the cost of one period has been calculated at 300 dollars, and 200 dollars for a second period. Yet my consumption remains the same as it was before.’
Under the old system, an inspector would go from house to house checking electricity meters in the presence of those who lived there. He would note down the amount used in a special book which the householder could then take to the bank and pay the bill. Since computerisation was introduced in 2009, there is no on-site visit, and the first time householders learn what they are going to be charged is when they get the bill.
Bills often show them using unfeasibly large amounts of power, and while this may sometimes be due to technical error, many suspect they are being over-charged by unscrupulous officials keen to siphon off some money.
Public anger over the billing system is so widespread that the issue has been discussed on television, and the head of the national electricity agency, Abdul Razaq Samadi, was summoned to the upper house of parliament to be questioned about it. ‘We accept that electricity officials do make some errors in their calculations,’ he told the politicians. ‘The electricity directorate is prepared to pay the people’s money back.’
Samadi told IWPR that the computerised billing was still having teething troubles, but it was much better than the old system which relied on meters that were vulnerable to fraud. He said consumers might think they were being charged exorbitant amounts, but that was generally not the case.
Shekib Ahmad Nesar, who heads the electricity department for Kabul city, explained that new digital meters had replaced the old analogue type, which were easily tampered with. ‘People fiddled their usage by a variety of methods, for instance by placing a magnet on the meter to make it run more slowly,’ he said.
Nesar said another reason why consumers were charged so much was that their power lines and meters were sometimes located inside other properties, whose owners could be siphoning electricity and bumping up the usage of the meter owner.
He said 30,000 of the new digital meters had already been installed in Kabul, and 20,000 more were planned. He said the electricity department had a laboratory for testing meters, and 300 had been checked so far in the presence of householders who had filed complaints, and no problems identified. ‘If anyone complains about their meters or bills, they can come to us and we will address their complaints,’ he said.
People unhappy about their bills say complaining is not that easy, and involves time-consuming visits to a series of offices. Many just decide to pay up.
Kabul resident Nematullah spent three or four days trying to find out why he was paying so much, and eventually got officials to admit they had charged him for almost twice as much power as he had used. ‘They apologised to me, saying they’d made a mistake entering the amount,’ he said. “If you catch them out, they say it was a mistake, and if you don’t, they, they embezzle your money.’
Kabul at least has an mains network, unlike much of the rest of Afghanistan. Officials say only 36 per cent of people nationwide have access to electricity. The capital used to get its power from the Naghlu and Sarobi hydroelectric schemes, but years of war damaged the machinery. The authorities are working to install new turbines at the two dams. These days, most of Kabul’s electricity is imported, and the supply should in theory still be adequate for the city’s needs.
Local electricity officials say around 35 per cent of the urban area still lacks a mains supply, but Nesar said this was because of the uncontrolled building of new homes in areas with no mains connection. He added that it would take time to install the power lines and substations needed to bring electricity to these areas.
(*) Abdul Latif Sahak in Balkh province and Khan Mohammad Danishju in Kabul are reporters trained by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Their articles first appeared in IWPR’S Afghan Recovery Report, No. 403, 13 July 2011. We re-publish them with the kind permission ofIWPR.
More on electricity in Afghanistan read here and here.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020