February   
2010

Vol 9 - No. 8


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SOUTH ASIA: AFGHANISTAN                                                                                                    News Briefs


 


                       
       (Afghanistan and Myanmar in the 
         map are not members of SAARC)

A White Elephant Power Plant in Kabul 

BY PRATAP CHATTERJEE

While Zahid Walid has won close to $100 million in diesel contracts from the Afghan government in these years, there is hard evidence that the money for this once-needed fuel is now essentially being squandered. Earlier this year, KEC, an Indian company, completed the first of two high voltage power lines from neighboring Central Asian countries that will bring cheap and reliable electricity into the capital.

The initial 220 kilovolt power line from Uzbekistan -- a $35 million project -- follows the same path as Zahid Walid's diesel trucks over the Hindu Kush. The comparison, however, ends there. True, the Indian engineers who constructed it had to survive the brutal snows in the Salang pass, but they are now done. On the other hand, the truckers continue to take the treacherous daily drive through the tunnel that connects northern Afghanistan to the south, bringing Turkmen diesel to Kabul at 22 cents a kilowatt hour. Meanwhile, the Uzbek electricity, traveling effortlessly through KEC's transmission lines, costs the Afghan taxpayer a mere six cents a kilowatt hour.

 

To add insult to injury, much of the diesel is meant for the USAID power plant at Tarakhil that has become a symbol of the sort of massive and widespread reconstruction waste and abuse that has gone on in this country for years. The plant, built by Black & Veatch, is now projected to cost $300 million, three times the price of similar plants in neighboring Pakistan. In addition, it will only be capable of supplying one-third of the power the Uzbek power line can deliver far less expensively. Nor will the Uzbek line be the only source of cheap electricity. KEC's engineers have broken ground on a second power line -- this one from Tajikistan -- that will supply 300 megawatts of electricity to Kabul, three times what the Tarakhil plant will produce at a bargain basement construction cost of $28 million.

 

"At full capacity, we burn 600,000 liters a day," Jack Currie, the Scottish manager of the Tarakhil plant told me as I toured it in late October. "And just how much will that cost the Afghan taxpayer?" I asked. "Well," replied Currie, "you can assume a dollar a liter of diesel." I quickly calculated and arrived at an annual total of $219 million per year, not including the plant's maintenance costs (estimated at another $60 million a year). Currie looked astonished when I mentioned the figure.

 

I took these numbers to Mohammed Khan, a member of the Afghan parliament and chair of its energy committee. "Will you approve the funds for this diesel power plant?" I asked. The soft-spoken Khan, a trained electrical engineer who worked for many years in the Kabul Electricity Department, answered simply: "No. Not unless we have an emergency."

 

So why build a power plant that, in terms of kilowatt hours made available, costs 26 times as much as the Indian-built power line? Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, Afghan's former finance minister, recalls the process. The idea, he says, originally came from then-US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann, who dreamed it up in April 2007 shortly before he left the country. He apparently envisioned it as a strategic alternative to the Uzbek power line. After all, at that time the repressive Uzbek regime had denied Washington the use of what was seen as a key military base in Central Asia, Karshi-Khanabad, and so functionally kicked US troops out of the country. Naturally, then, it was also seen as an unreliable political partner for the US-backed regime of Hamid Karzai.

 

Following up, USAID officials told the Karzai government that they could build a diesel plant in Kabul in just over two years for $120 million. It would, the ambassador indicated, be functional just in time for the 2009 elections, allowing Karzai to claim that he had provided power to the electricity-starved capital. The Afghan president readily agreed to the plan, instructing anxious officials at the ministry of finance to approve the scheme in early 2007. He even agreed to put $20 million of Afghan funds into the project -- after being assured that the US would pay for the rest.

 

Over the next two years, while Indian engineers raced the Americans to provide power to Kabul (ultimately winning handily), the ministry of energy and water was having a hard time keeping the lights on during Kabul's harsh winters. And while the city waited for these promised sources of power to come on line, the new political-business elite, with its specially set up companies like Zahid Walid, was winning government-issued contracts to supply diesel to the old Kabul power plant -- and making money hand over fist.

 

Zahid Walid was hardly the only politically well-connected business to clean up: Ghazanfar, a company from Mazar-i-Sharif, also won $17 million in diesel-supply contracts in the winter of 2006-2007, and then an astonishing $78 million in new contracts for 2008-early 2009. Not surprisingly, Ghazanfar turns out to be run by a family that is very close to President Karzai. (One sister, Hosn Banu Ghazanfar, is the women's minister and a brother is a member of parliament.)

 

In March 2009, the Ghazanfars opened a new bank in the capital, plastering the city with giant billboard advertisements featuring a cascade of gold coins. Less than six months later, the bank wrote out a two million dollar interest-free loan to Karzai for his election campaign, paying back the favors his government had done for them over the previous three years.  

 

[Copyright 2009 Pratap Chatterjee]

_____________________

 

Pratap Chatterjee is an investigative journalist and senior editor at CorpWatch. He is the author of of Halliburton's Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War (Nation Books, 2009) and Iraq, Inc. (Seven Stories Press, 2004). Dr Ali Safi contributed research and reporting for this article.  

 

News Briefs

 

MAZAR-I-SHARIF: Work on railway line to begin soon: Officials from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan have agreed to launch construction work on a 75-kilometre railway line, linking Mazar-i-Sharif with the Hairatan dry port.

 

An agreement to the effect was reached at talks between the two sides on January 16. The Uzbek delegation was led by Railways Director Rahmatove while the Afghan team was headed by acting Deputy Minister of Public Works Dr. Ahmad Shah Waheed.

Governor's spokesman Munir Farhad told Pajhwok Afghan News the 75-km railway track would cost $129 million, to be provided by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

 

The construction of another railway line -- linking the airport in Mazar-i-Sharif to Dara-i-Sauf district of neighbouring Samangan province -- would be launched in the second phase, he revealed.

 

The Uzbek director said work on the scheme would begin in a week's time and would take a year to complete. The project would help strengthen trade relations between the two countries, he hoped Dr. Waheed said the scheme would provide work opportunities for hundreds of people and boost the revenue of the Hairatan dry port besides facilitating the transportation of goods.

 

Hairatan is the gateway for almost half of Afghanistan 's imports and much of its humanitarian relief goods. It is one of the important routes linking the war-torn country with Central Asian Republics

Value of old bills tumbles in Kabul: A number of money changers in Kabul are paying less for old currency notes of 10 to 100 afghanis while charging more for new bills of the same denomination. 

The value differential is taking place despite Da Afghanistan Bank's an announcement that both old and new notes have the same worth. Residents complain the practical situation negates the central bank's directive. 

 

GHAZNI CITY : Training course for women launched: A two-month course has got under way to train 100 women in keeping chickens in southern Ghazni province. The training was launched in the Khwaja Omari district.

 

The district's administrative head told Pajhwok Afghan News hens would be distributed to the women after completion of the training. Qasim Desiwal said the participants would get egg-laying hens. 

 

He hoped the training and the support would enable women to earn respectable living for their families. He said each trained woman would get 15 hens from a local organisation called Afghanistan Development. 

 

Khwaja Omari is the most peaceful district of Ghazni, located around 17 kilometres north of the provincial capital. 

 

Director of Agriculture and Livestock Sultan Hussain Abbasyar -- confident the assistance would help impoverished families -- said they planned to launch such projects in other districts. 

 

[Pajhwok Afghan News] 

 

 

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