KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Amid controversy and violence, USAID is taking one more shot at finishing Kajaki Dam, a project that has thwarted American plans and drained its coffers for a decade.
Kajaki Dam in Helmand province has the potential to dramatically improve the electricity supply in a key region of Afghanistan, including its second-largest city, Kandahar.
The dam, which has become emblematic of all that has gone wrong with reconstruction in Afghanistan, was built with American funds in the 1950s. In the 1970s the U.S. Agency for International Development installed two turbines and left a space in the powerhouse for a third — now known as the “ghost bay.” But plans to install the third unit were abandoned after the Soviet invasion in 1979.
The newest contractor for Kajaki, GFA Consulting, will still have to contend with violent conditions on the ground and daunting logistics challenges that have plagued the project since work on the dam was first contracted out in 2004. But USAID, GFA and Afghanistan’s utility company all said they plan to push through anyway.
“Skepticism or no, work is going forward,” USAID Afghanistan Mission Director William Hammink said in an email. Even as American forces are pulling out of the province, Washington has pledged another $75 million in direct aid to Afghanistan’s national utility to complete the project.
But in a letter to Congress this month, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction questioned whether the projected benefits of the dam are even worth the cash now pledged to it.
While SIGAR and USAID have come up with different estimates for the project, even USAID’s more conservative figure puts the cost of the project at more than $300 million.
Kajaki Dam is nestled in a valley in Helmand province, one of the most restive areas of Afghanistan and the epicenter of its poppy economy. The Helmand River, broken by the dam’s massive structure, winds from the Hindu Kush Mountains in rugged northeast Afghanistan hundreds of miles south to the desert and to some of the most violent districts of Afghanistan, such as Sangin and Lashkar Gah. The dam itself was the scene of heavy fighting in 2007.
After the U.S. invasion in 2001, pressure mounted to finish a project begun so long ago. But, like so many of the U.S. plans for Afghanistan, it has repeatedly gone off the rails.
In its first attempt at installing a third turbine, USAID hired the China Machine-Building International Corp. CMIC had generator parts built and shipped to Afghanistan in 2006. That’s when the trouble started.
According to USAID, it took two years just to get all the generator components to the site “due to the non-permissive environment created by Anti Government Elements along the transport route,” a euphemism for insurgents and their ability to disrupt supply routes. Small pieces of equipment were airlifted, and a military convoy had to move the largest parts.
Then, three months after the generator parts finally arrived at the dam, the Chinese government told CMIC it was too dangerous to stay. In November 2008, it pulled up stakes.
The next company to try its hand at the project was an American contractor, Black & Veatch. It was hired to complete the project in late 2010, but its involvement was also ill-fated. For three years, Black & Veatch faced criticism for slow progress at Kajaki while USAID racked up a multi-million million bill for logistics and security.
Black & Veatch did not respond to a request for comment.
Last May, USAID turned over the lead role to Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat, the Afghan state’s power company, though the aid agency remains deeply involved. After the power company put the contract out for bid, GFA took over from Black & Veatch in December.
It found the generator much as the Chinese company left it, according to project director Geoff Robinson.
“It’s all in bits. There’s lots and lots and lots of bits,” he said. Still, if the dam were anywhere else in the world the turbine would be done by now, he said.
Without a military convoy, helicopters are the only safe way to reach the valley.
“The difficulty ... is getting in and getting out,” he said. When asked what it would take to drive GFA off the project, Robinson said they would leave “when we start getting shot at.”
But the fact remains that the security situation isn’t getting better, and may get worse before the project is completed.
In dissuading a reporter from traveling there in February, public affairs officer Col. Chris Garver described the situation in Kajaki district as “kinetic.”
“When I say kinetic, I don’t mean occasional attacks, I mean fighting nearly every day,” he said.
If someone someday does manage to turn on the third turbine, it will be a boon to the people of Afghanistan’s south, especially Kandahar city, which suffers from a chronic electricity shortage. More than half its factories have shut down for want of power, and homes have electricity only for six to eight hours per day.
Haji Agha Lalai Dastagiri, member of the Kandahar provincial council, said Kandahar’s chronic electricity shortage has become even more dire in recent months, since USAID stopped paying for fuel for the city’s generators after its agreement expired in September. At the same time, he said power flowing from Kajaki’s existing two generators has declined. Without power, many of the city’s factories are at a standstill, and citizens’ are suffering, he said.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.