What went wrong with Afghanistan Kajaki power project?


Watch Mark Urban's film about the Kajaki dam power project in full

Related Stories

Ever since Western forces plunged into Afghanistan a decade ago, they have realised the importance of winning hearts and minds, particularly in the restive south.

The idea that they could bring electricity to millions of people by upgrading the Kajaki dam in Helmand Province has proven to be a counter of counter-insurgency El Dorado - a quest into which lives and money have been poured, but so far without effect.

General David Petraeus, the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, told me during a recent interview that the Kajaki project had proven to be an object lesson in, "overpromising but under-delivery".

British officers once suggested the upgrade to the power facilities might be completed by the end of 2007, but today even the most optimistic assessments suggest it could not happen before late-2013.

Visionary project

The dam, which nestles in spectacular mountain scenery in the north of Helmand, was built back in the 1950s as part of an American aid project.

Kajaki Dam The Kajaki Dam is located on the Helmand River, 100 miles north-west of Kandahar City

It has two turbines and currently produces sufficient electricity for several hundred thousand people - mostly in the Kandahar area.

Back in 2004 a senior official from the American government agency USAid hit upon the idea of installing a third turbine in the power hall at Kajaki.

It was felt that because of the poor condition of the original plant, adding this third turbine could more than double the output to as much as 50 megawatts.

The Americans were taken by the visionary nature of the project, in particular the idea that that Afghans who had never had electricity before (estimates of the number vary from 1.8m to 2.5m), could get it.

What better way to join the civilian effort towards the military campaign than to produce this tangible change in people's lives?

Difficult mission

USAid obtained an extra turbine and throughout 2007 tried to persuade the British, who at that stage held Kajaki, to take it up for installation.

Find out more

Mark Urban
  • Mark Urban's report on the Kajaki power project can be seen on Newsnight at 2230 BST on BBC Two on Tuesday 28 June
  • Mark also presents Afghanistan: The Battle for Helmand - telling the inside story of Britain's fight for the province at 2100 BST on BBC Two on Wednesday 29 June

The British dragged their feet for many months, daunted by the scale of the task of hauling a 210-tonne plant up through the worst of Afghanistan's insurgency.

"Eagle Summit" - the operation to transport it - was finally launched in August 2008, involving thousands of Nato troops and hundreds of vehicles.

The turbine was broken down into sections and carried on low loaders within a protective bubble of Nato troops.

By taking the machinery from Kandahar airport northwards through the desert, they by-passed Sangin, the most violent part of Helmand.

It was only at Kajaki Sofla, a village just a few miles south of the dam, that they met serious opposition.

In Kajaki Sofla, British attempts to buy off the local tribe had been scotched by the Taliban leadership in Pakistan, who ordered them to fight. The result was a battle in which, the British estimated at the time, 200 had been killed.

By the time the convoy reached its destination, comparisons were being made with the British Army's logistic feats of World War II, and the Parachute Regiment's action at Arnhem.

But the turbine, taken up at such cost, sits unassembled where it was dropped off back in 2008.

'Extra voltage'

Earlier this year, I examined the plant in a yard near the Kajaki Dam.

Watch soldiers on the original mission

Its parts sit in broken packing cases or rusting freight containers, many of them exposed to the elements and overgrown with weeds.

So what went wrong?

Cement foundations for the new turbine remain to be built. Not only did the Chinese engineers contracted to do this flee due to security concerns, but the 500 tonnes of cement needed have not been brought up.

There are other problems too. The power lines and transformers that take the electricity currently produced by the plant could not handle the extra voltage produced by the new turbine. The whole power distribution system will have to be upgraded.

However, the vision of giving electrical enlightenment to the people of southern Afghanistan remains a powerful one for Western officials.

Recent work by the US Marines (who now hold the area) to improve the route up the Sangin valley offers hope that the cement needed for the foundations could be brought up by road.

As for USAid, it remains convinced of the value of the project. One of their officials told us they believe the turbine could be installed in 24 to 30 months, and a new contractor has been appointed to do the work.

The real question now is whether it can happen before Nato forces are withdrawn.

Mark Urban's report on the Kajaki power project can be seen on Newsnight at 2230 BST on BBC Two on Tuesday 28 June.

Mark also presents Afghanistan: The Battle for Helmand telling the inside story of Britain's fight for the province with unique access to the generals and front-line troops who were there at 2100 BST on BBC Two on Wednesday 29 June and after on BBC iPlayer (UK only)

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

CIA interrogation report: Just what did the UK know?

Mark Urban explores the question of what the UK knew about rendition and interrogation techniques, in the wake of the US Senate report that criticised the CIA.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Let me see. Even with my measly understanding of Grid systems I understood. Pound to a penny some prat ordered a more modern turbine which outputted a higher voltage in order to keep the size down, and didn't realise you would either need to install more power lines or upgrade the existing distribution and transformers and either up transformers for the existing turbines or more new turbines.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    So the British kicked their heels and were eventually forced to drag a turbine to an unprepared site with inadequate infrastructure. I can see where things might have started to unravel there. Perhaps they were relying on the same geniuses who are building the Edinburgh Tram. Britain, a nation of managers, accountants and shop keepers. What could possibly go wrong?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    As an electrical engineer I also find it irritating when jouralists get simple technical things wrong: just as journalists get irritated when I spell things wrong or use "less" when I meant "fewer". However, it does the Engineering/Science community no good at all if we deteriorate into "my qualification is bigger than yours" as an argument.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Mpellatt: All due respect,no one's throwing around credentials. I would sound very haughty if I started listing mine.
    Let me clarify this prob. Mark said high V. will cause delivery issues, giving erroneous imp. as if different delivery voltages were being used.
    But issues would occur if stepdown transformers/HV-transmitters were of substandard quality with no upkeep,which is the sad case in AF.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    With respect, you said "Operating Voltage in a conventional electric grid system....". That clearly indicates that you were referring to grid voltage.
    I'm an electrical engineer (Imperial College, '76) if we're throwing qualifications around.

    The hyperlink got mangled. Just remove the closing bracket.

    I read it a bit more thorougly - seems there's some 220KV lines now as well.


Comments 5 of 13



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.