Energy in Afghanistan: Reliable On-Grid Power for Kabul

After years of darkness and air pollution caused by countless diesel generators, Kabul has reliable grid-supplied power, and initiatives are in motion to do the same for the rest of Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan – Adela, 47 and a mother of six, remembers the dark, cold nights in Kabul, when she cooked dinner on a wood fire in a corner of her backyard amid falling snow.

Sadly, her daughter, Sharifa, now a fourth-grader, has the scars to prove it.

"Three years ago, a lantern she was lighting to brighten up the room caught on fire and she burnt her hand," says Adela, pointing at the scars.

That was before electricity arrived and Kabul was known as the darkest capital city in the world.

Safety is not the only reason that Adela is thankful that electricity now lights up her hometown. She does not want to use fuels or wood again for cooking or lighting because, as she puts it, they are not only dangerous but also time-consuming and costly compared to electricity. Today, she can prepare a meal in a brightly lit kitchen equipped with all modern conveniences—even a blender, which she uses to make fruit juices for the family from time to time.

"I used to buy a glass of juice for AF50 ($1)," says Adela, "but now I can make nine myself for the same price—enough for the whole family."

Power around the clock

Today, Kabul's population of close to 4 million enjoy a regular supply of electricity—around 75% of it via the 420-kilometer (km) Northern Transmission Link from Uzbekistan, which also supplies the major northern cities. The 217 km portion of the line that starts at Afghanistan's northern border was constructed under the Power Distribution Project, approved in 2005, and financed with $50 million from ADB's concessionary Asian Development Fund. The power transmission contract with Uzbekistan is valid for 20 years and obliges Uzbekistan to provide 300 megawatts of electricity to Afghanistan annually.

In the long term, the aim is for Afghanistan to be energy self sufficient, but in the meantime the country is reliant on imports because the power generation, transmission, and distribution systems have been severely degraded by years of conflict, and there is no national transmission grid. Energy imports are an interim and urgent solution.

"Air quality has significantly improved, and businesses, schools and government departments are functioning and playing a vital role in improving the standards of life."
—Joji Tokeshi, ADB Afghanistan Resident Mission country director

The results have been significant, says Joji Tokeshi, country director of ADB's Afghanistan Resident Mission, in more ways than are immediately obvious.

"Air quality has significantly improved, and businesses, schools, and government departments are functioning and playing a vital role in improving the standards of life," he says, pointing out that a regular electricity supply is also vital to enhanced commercial and business opportunities. "The current average [annual] growth rate of 9% could not have been sustained without 24/7 power supplies."

Just as importantly, says Tokeshi, a broad-based, regular power supply is also essential to helping landlocked and economically ravaged Afghanistan regain its historical status as a trade and commerce hub.

That means ensuring a stable power supply to all Afghanis. At present, around 30% of the overall population has access to a regular power supply. Hamidullah Durrani, 35, senior ADB project officer and energy specialist on for ADB, says that the completion of four ongoing power-generation projects in the next 2 to 3 years will see ADB achieve its goal of providing 40% of the population with electricity.

This is in line with a policy of gradually expanding the transmission and distribution lines to areas that previously had no power at all. According to Durrani, when the Uzbekistan–Kabul Electricity Project is completed, electricity currently being generated by the Naghloo hydropower dam will be partially diverted from Kabul to Nangarhar Province, which is due east of the Afghan capital.

Game changer

"The average scores of students have increased from 60% to 90% because of the provision of electric lighting, and since the sound of the power generator that used to disturb them is gone."
—Mohammad Afzal Rahimi, 42, private school teacher

Mohammad Afzal Rahimi, a 42-year-old teacher at a private school in Kabul recalls the problems that students and teachers had to deal with when there was no electricity.

"In the last 2 years, students have been scoring higher than in the past," he says. "The average scores of students have increased from 60% to 90% because of the provision of electric lighting, and since the sound of the power generator that used to disturb them is gone."

But banishing the noisy and polluting diesel generators that once infested Kabul has not only been good for students' grades. Previously, all businesses, government offices, and NGOs relied on them, and the result was not only acrid air, but also high overheads. The regular supply of power from Uzbekistan means more efficient businesses, and significant environmental benefits.

Meanwhile, Nazifa, a 45-year-old housewife who lives with her family in the Chehelsutoon district of Kabul, picks up an old lantern and looks at it as if it is a distant memory.

In fact it is.

"When my younger sister, Seema, and I were kids, we did our homework together in the light of this lantern," she says. "She used to read aloud, and it disturbed and annoyed me. We used to argue about it until mother broke us up."

Today Nazifa's house has a regular electricity supply and the days of lamp-lit squabbles over homework are long gone. Her two sons—one attending university, the other secondary school—can study wherever they choose to in the home.