Sun, Feb 21, 2016 - Page 14 News List

Crippled power grid exposes vulnerability of Afghan capital

As many of the fallen cables lie in areas contested or controlled by the Taliban, a lasting restoration of power supply may be possible only with the acquiescence of the militants

By Jawad Sukhanyar and Ahmad Shakib  /  NY Times News Service, KABUL and KUNDUZ

A vendor plugs mobile phones batteries in to a DC battery power supply to charge in Kabul on Feb. 9.

Photo: EPA

When saboteurs crippled the Afghan capital’s power supply last month, the tailors in Najeebullah’s clothing shop had to abandon their electric sewing machines for hand-cranked models. Their output fell by half.

“I’ve lost nearly US$215 since the power cuts,” said Najeebullah, a gentle-mannered man with a gray beard. “I have four tailors to pay, whether they sew two outfits a day or four. And I have to pay my rent and feed my staff, whether I make money or not.”

Najeebullah, who goes by only one name, said he eventually decided to buy a diesel generator, “but I have to pass the fuel costs on to my customers, and they can’t afford it.”

Three decades of conflict have taught Afghans to be resilient and adaptable, but the latest hardships have further soured the mood in the city of 5 million people.

A series of deadly Taliban bombings in the capital since the start of the year have unnerved Afghans and Western officials increasingly concerned about the deteriorating security. Then, on Jan. 27, the lines that carry much of Kabul’s electricity south from Uzbekistan were cut in Baghlan Province, in an area marked by savage fighting between Afghan troops and insurgents.

Attacks since then have also knocked out lines from Tajikistan, cutting the capital’s power supply by about 80 percent.

Every day brings promises by the government that the lights will be on again soon, but the cables fell in areas contested or controlled by the Taliban, suggesting a lasting restoration will be possible only with the acquiescence of the insurgents.

Many homes and most large businesses here already have backup generators. However, the privations are another disappointment for a long-suffering people. The creation of a modern power grid, paid for by international donors, was one of Afghanistan’s signature achievements after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001. Only 5 percent of Afghans had electricity then, compared with 40 percent today, said Qudratullah Delawari, the chief executive of DABS, Afghanistan’s national power company.

Since the lines were cut at the end of last month, virtually no one in the capital has uninterrupted power, and many are lucky to get any at all.

So much of everyday commerce and modern social life, even in Kabul, is conducted online, and every temporary return of power creates a dash to surf the Web and recharge electrical devices.

Assadullah, who was wiping the dust from his Toyota Corolla outside the Soviet-era apartment block in the Macrorayan neighborhood where he lives with his family, said he had only two hours of electricity a day.

“If there is no electricity, then there is no heat, and we don’t get running water, which means all the toilets and bathrooms are unusable,” he said.

Every evening, the women and children stand in line to fill buckets with water from the downstairs tap, which they then lug up the stairs.

“Honestly, we don’t have any expectations for this government, they can’t help the people,” said Assadullah, who also goes by one name. “I don’t even know what’s happening with the problem because there is no electricity to watch the news on TV.”

Beyond the inconvenience and the damage to the country’s limping economy, the cuts to power have exposed the vulnerability of a city that already felt besieged. The Taliban have been gaining ground since the departure of most US and other NATO combat soldiers at the end of 2014, staging daily attacks on police and army checkpoints in Kabul and the surrounding provinces.

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