In Afghanistan the social and political situation has begun to stabilise. Now international non-governmental organisations and the Taliban authorities are both searching for hydro power companies who would be interested in re-establishing and improving the country’s power sector.

Afghanistan has a nominal installed capacity of around 500MW (for a population of 22M people). The bulk of the capacity is in large thermal and hydro stations. The thermal capacity is almost completely out of action at present; the only operating plants are Paktia, a 600kW plant in the province of Khost, and a 48MW plant in Balkh province. Of the hydro power stations around half are operable (see table). In fact, the most successful plants are currently the smaller hydro plants.

The reason that small hydro plants are still active is that they are managed independently, and are not often part of a centralised grid. This has fitted well with the political administration, such as it has been, where ‘warlords’ have controlled discrete areas.

As a result, despite the continuing instability in the northern parts of the country, there are good prospects for beginning refurbishment in other areas in the near future.

Preparations for refurbishment were first started in 1990, when the German co-operation agency GTZ began taking steps towards reconstruction and repair. GTZ’s work was focused on two stations, Filkoh near Kandarhar, and Asadfabad, near Jalalabad. These plants are located in the east of the country, an area which is very promising with regard to the development of agriculture and natural resources, and which has a history of co-operation with the Germans going back some 20 years. Now, however, the GTZ programme is on standby, because of the 1997 takeover of the region by the Taliban militia.

The Taliban are said to respect the work that is done by NGOs for the benefit of the rural population, but nevertheless relations between the two groups are very cautious.

Small hydroelectric stations have a number of technical advantages, compared to the stations associated with large dams, which have in many cases undergone heavy siltation. The small plants feed isolated networks and on many sites operators are still in place, who although they are very much older than the norm still have many skills and a deep knowledge of the plant.

Damage to these small plants from military activity has been slight, as they have been respected by local warlords. However, they have suffered much- increased wear and tear and preventive maintenance has been minimal.

The most important contributors to reducing the availability of these plant have been:

•Lack of spare parts. Funds have not been available to make even minor purchases, and in any case maintenance materials such as grease or high pressure oils have not been available. As a consequence, even low-grade maintenance has been impossible.

•Transmission lines have deteriorated greatly, in many cases as a direct result of military action.

•Land mines have been placed near transmission lines.

•There has been no access to workshop or transport facilities.

Despite these difficulties, operators are doing their best to keep the stations on line. They have also become involved in training young people — previously subject to recruitment into local militia — into operation and maintenance of the plant.

An interesting example of the possibilities in small hydro plant refurbishment is the Darunta station in Jalalabad, which originally had a capacity of 11.5MW. This plant was established in 1963-4 under the Daoud regime with the co-operation of the then-USSR, and all of the major equipment is still in place. It is connected to the Darunta multipurpose dam (whose other major function was to provide water for the now-defunct Hadda olive plantations), working under a head of 18.5m.

Suffering heavily

Darunta has three Kaplan turbine/ direct-coupled generator machine sets from the famous St Petersburg works of Leningradsky Metalny Zavod. Now, the main bearings are suffering heavily and some minor gaps already exist, promoting in their turn considerable vertical balancing problems. The thrust bearings have also deteriorated, and are getting worse. Thanks to leaking hydraulic conduits there is not really enough oil pressure to move the wicket gates or for turbine runner blade governing.

In the worst cases it has not been possible for many years to gain access to these important pieces of equipment. As a consequence, grinding devices have been used to cut thick bolts and dismantle equipment compounds.

Russian companies are unlikely to invest in this plant, as their own economic pressures mean their priorities are else-where. The Jalalabad owners therefore need investment from elsewhere. They point out that Darunta has much to offer:

•It is a showcase possibility for refurbishment and repair.

•It could be used for hands-on training of a new technical generation — the Technical University of Jalalabad is very close and could use the hydro station as a model application.

•There is a local market for the electricity. The 11.5MW plant previously provided electricity for 40,000 inhabitants. The population now numbers ten times as many, partly because inter-regional gas pipeline investments have held out the chance of economic growth in the area.

•There are prospects for grid integration in future.

•Reviving the power plant may help promote revival of the associated infrastructure. This would mean institutional strengthening, promoting new enterprises, improving irrigation and reviving rational water use — in the interim, much of the irrigation water has been diverted to poppy fields.

•It will help in managing siltation behind the dam.

Projects such as this are an important contribution to the future of Afghanistan, and may be the beginning of projects to exploit the several thousand MW of hydro potential within the country.

Starting up a hydro industry in a country with geography as unforgiving as that of Afghanistan required a huge number of obstacles to be overcome. In the early years of this century, for example, roads did not exist in many areas and heavy equipment for the 1500kW Jabel Seraj plant, north of Kabul, was brought in by elephant across the much-disputed Khyber Pass. Other equipment followed this route, even into the 1930s. Now, overcoming the obstacles to rebuilding and expanding the industry requires as much persistence.

Most of the Afghan small hydro industry is in need of refurbishment. ‘Rehabilitate, own operate’ and ‘rehabilitate, own, operate, transfer’ schemes are all available, and companies are invited to participate.