Kajaki dam: Contentious, costly, and a failure
The Guardian (UK)
September 4, 2008
The Kajaki dam is a monument to failed foreign dreams in Afghanistan. It was built by the Americans in the early 1950s as a cold war showcase, the sort of mega-scheme that was supposed to modernise the developing world.
But the project was contentious and costly long before the battles of the last few years between the Taliban and western forces, which saw the US bomb the site in 2002 before attempting to begin reconstruction in 2004.
Helmand’s water has always been traded between the great powers of the day. In the 1930s Germany and Japan intended to divert part of the great Helmand river which flows into the deserts of Iran and never reaches the sea. But cutting off part of Iran’s water supply, as the Taliban did briefly by shutting the dam, is controversial, and has had an environmental impact on the remarkable Sistan basin, an area of desert wetland.
After the second world war, the US government moved in, funding the Helmand project through a company based in San Francisco which insisted every part be shipped halfway round the world from the US. By 1950 the UN was warning that the scheme was too expensive and would fail. But America persisted, establishing the Helmand Valley authority, modelled on the famous Tennessee Valley authority of Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal.
Two dams were built, including the Kajaki. But they were never completed to the intended height, lacked power equipment and – most importantly – failed to bring about the planned green revolution. Only a third of the projected land was irrigated, and even that turned salty, so crops failed.
Over two decades, the Helmand project consumed 20% of Afghanistan’s national budget, as well as much US aid money. Cold war competition with the Soviet Union – which eventually took over part of the Kajaki project – saw the US fund the installation of two power turbines in the 1970s, and make space for a third.
The gap is supposed to be filled by the Chinese-made turbine eventually trucked in this week, guarded by 4,000 troops. But even that can only reach its full potential if power lines are built to the city of Kandahar, 60 miles away. That will take time, and they will be vulnerable to Taliban attacks.
Meanwhile, one of the old US turbines produces power. The other is in pieces, awaiting a refurbishment that began in 2004 but has been made impossible by insecurity.
British forces have fought, on and off, for several years to secure the site and to allow construction of the road that can send heavy equipment up the Helmand valley. If the scheme is ever completed – and the level of the dam raised to the capacity planned in the 1950s – the Kajaki will provide power and perhaps some peace to southern Afghanistan. But its planned output of 51 megawatts is small, perhaps 6% of the country’s power needs.