Afghanistan: Entrepreneurs take power

Originally published
The capital's crumbling water and electricity system is forcing many residents to pay private suppliers.
By Ahmad Khalid in Kabul (ARR No. 46, 31-Jan-03)

Kabul's long-suffering residents are losing patience with the city's increasingly erratic supply of water and electricity and many are turning to small private entrepreneurs who can guarantee a regular source - at a price.

After 23 years of war - and with the longest drought in human memory now entering its fourth year - the capital's shattered infrastructure is unable to supply its growing population, estimated at two million inhabitants and increasing daily with the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled abroad to avoid the fighting.

The city's damaged power stations are constantly breaking down, throwing the capital into darkness on an almost daily basis. While the poor shiver in unheated rooms, they accuse the powerful and the wealthy - particularly military commanders - of tapping into the electricity system to run large households and expensive equipment.

Three out of the city's four water sources have dried up, and the main regional supplier, the Logar River plant, has been out of action since it was severely damaged during fighting in the early Nineties. Government officials said that in some parts of the country the water table had fallen by as much as 70 metres. This is forcing people to dig ever deeper wells, which in turn drains water out of existing ones.

Ordinary residents are forced to haul water in buckets and cans over long distances, and much of it is unfit to drink. A government official said recently that only 20 percent of Kabulis had access to clean water.

This dismal situation has opened the door for entrepreneurs such as Mohammad Masoom, who has linked up three Chinese-made generators to dynamos from some of the hundreds of destroyed Russian tanks dotting the countryside to provide power for 750 families in Guzargah, a suburb of Kabul. "They can light up 2,000 10-watt and 25-watt neon lights from 5.30pm until the end of the television programmes at 11pm," he said.

Masoom, one of around a dozen small power operators in the capital, has monthly charges of 25 afghanis (45 cents) for a 10-watt neon light, 45 afghanis for a 25-watt one, 100 afghanis for a black and white TV, and 170 for a colour one. "If the customer needs 24-hour power we can provide that at 100 afghanis (two dollars) for 24 hours, or they can buy the fuel for the generator."

His price is well above the 500 afghanis per kilowatt for city power, but none of his customers are complaining.

Guzargah resident Sayed Basit said the electricity in the district, while far from perfect, was more regular than in some other parts of town. "In other places the commanders have stretched wires from the junction-boxes to their homes, and are enjoying 24-hour electricity while some families are going without power for 12 hours at a time, sometimes for a whole week."

And for many families, the price of Masoom's power is more than they can afford in a country where the average wage of just 40 dollars a month. "In the area where I live I know a large number of people who can't afford this electricity and spend their evenings in the dark," Mohammad Wakil Nijrabi, of Kabul's 11th district, told IWPR.

For Bismellah Khan, who lives in a new settlement in the Kabul suburb of Khair Khana, the problem is not power, but water.

"We buy all our water from private tankers which come to our area two or three times a week. A 200-litre barrel costs 40 afghanis (90 cents), and a 25 litre can costs eight afghanis." This compares to the city price for water, through meters, of 900-1,000 afghanis a year.

Zemarai, owner of one of three private tankers in Kabul, told IWPR that he collected his water free from a number of sources, including the Babur Garden - a historic park close to the dried-up Kabul River in the south of the city - Kabul International Airport and a military installation. "Our tanker holds 6,000 litres. The price we charge customers depends on how far from the source they live," he added.

A free water delivery service is offered to some areas by a United Nations tanker. But Agha Shireen, another Khair Khana resident, claimed, "All the UN water is taken by those who know a few people in the distribution team or have power and influence. Not a drop has ever reached the poor and needy."

As in the case of power, a major reason for the water shortage - apart from the drought, and the leaky pipes and taps that are estimated to waste some 50 percent - is illegal tapping into the system.

"The lack or shortage of water in some parts of Kabul is due to the increasing population and the illegal use of water by armed and influential people," Sayed Jan, general director of the city's water supply department, told IWPR. "In some places people are using it to irrigate their vegetable crops."

Meanwhile, engineers who are looking at ways of providing more water for the city predict gloomily that unless there is a significant amount of rain in the next couple of months, wells at least twice as deep as the current 90 metre ones will have to be dug - or the capital will face similar or worse problems this summer.

Ahmad Khalid is a journalism student in Kabul