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Lights on for some Kabul residents, rest wait in hope

Sharif Khoram (AFP) / 22 March 2009

KABUL - For the first time in perhaps 20 years, Kabul resident Abdul Karim can turn his lights on every single night.

Residents gather in a village near Aybak, north of Kabul. –Reuters“This power is like eyes. If you don’t have eyes, you can’t walk,” he said.

Karim is one of the lucky Kabul residents to benefit from a 40-megawatt (MW) boost in power supply to the capital of roughly four million since mid-January.

For up to 40,000 households, power supply has been boosted to 18 hours a day—up from four hours every third day—according to USAID, Washington’s overseas aid arm, which helped put the project in place.

Seven years after the US military helped end the repressive rule of the Islamist Taliban, many Kabul residents are finally beginning to feel that one of their most pressing complaints is being dealt with.

Karim’s 21-year-old son, Haroon, is thrilled—mainly because it means he can watch a lot more television.

“There is no night that I have gone to bed before 12. This power is an amazing thing because we do not have places for entertainment,” he said.

The wattage in their home is enough for the lights and a few appliances—though like most Afghans, they still use traditional wood-fired heaters and gas for cooking.

Kabul is one of the few bright spots in the impoverished country when it comes to electricity supply.

Only about 10 percent of the Afghan population, estimated at between 26 and 30 million, has access to power, the government says, not much different to the early 1980s when the Soviet Union was in charge and before the conflicts that destroyed the country and its infrastructure.

The scarcity of power in the capital is often cited by people who grumble that the roughly 15 billion dollars in aid that arrived after the Taliban’s removal has made little real difference to their lives.

The substantial international military and aid communities based in the city cope with large and costly generators while most Afghans rely on wood and gas.

If and when power does arrive, the locals rush to switch on geysers, fill buckets with water, do the ironing—no matter what time of day or night.

The recent surge to Kabul is temporary—the power was diverted from the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif near the Uzbek border and is to be returned when Kabul’s situation improves.

Nevertheless, hopes are high that a more regular supply may not be far off.

Electronics salesman Amir Mohammad has seen a jump in television sales.

“In 15 days I sold 100 TV sets. Before I could sell 20 in whole month,” he said. He also sold 30 washing machines in two weeks.

Abdul Halim is on the downside of the power surge, thinking about closing his business selling one-kilowatt Chinese-made generators that can run 10 light bulbs.

“Before I was selling around 20 units a day,” he said, adding that he has cut the price but these days no one is buying.

Various projects are under way to boost power to the city while also improving a poor billing system to cover costs.

About 300 MW is expected from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan soon, deputy power minister Ahmad Wali Shirzai told AFP. USAID is meanwhile funding the construction of a 100-MW power plant for Kabul.

“Within a year, Kabul’s distribution network will be upgraded to manage up to 400 MW, increasing its capacity and reliability before the additional power comes on line,” said a USAID official who asked not to be named.

“This will serve about 1.2 million individuals—around one-fourth of Kabul residents,” the official said. “However, change takes time—it could be years before all of Kabul receives 24-hour electricity in a sustainable manner.”

The government goal is for power to reach 65 percent of urban households and a quarter of households in rural areas by the end of 2010.

Regular electricity supply is a dream for 23-year-old Nargis and her 10-member family who live in a small house in a part of the city badly hit by the 1990s civil war.

There was panic about a month ago when an earthquake shook Kabul and the family scrambled, in the dark, to flee the house. “We hardly found the doors,” said Nargis, who is still in school.

“If there was electricity, I could study in a separate room.”

For now, however, with an income of 100 dollars a month, they can only afford a gas lamp in one room—and it can get pretty noisy and crowded, she added.

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