Lighting Up the Homes and Lives of Thousands
Borghaso, Bamyan Province: Eleven-year-old Mohamed Nasim, who is in sixth grade, wakes up at 5:30 every morning to take computer lessons in a makeshift classroom here in Borghaso village, Bamyan Province, northwest of Kabul. He draws a house in Microsoft Paint, colors it, and types his name in the corner as his young teacher watches over his shoulders. The back of Mohamed’s hands are dried and cracked by the cold weather.
- UNDP has funded the construction of 18 micro hydroelectic power plants in Bamyan province, with a budget of $997,000 provided in part by the Governments of Denmark, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway and the European Union.
- The plants are currently generating a cumulative 196 kilowatts of electricity that is powering 2,163 households, benefiting more than 15,000 people.
- In Borghaso, about 160 families, or 1,120 people, benefit from the 12.7 kw of electricity generated by the plant.
- In Sia-Khak district, about a 20-minute drive from Borghaso, the local shura decided to build a flour mill attached to its micro hydroelectric power plant. The flour mill is able to grind 1,100 kilos of wheat a day. The mill charges one kilo of wheat for every 10 kilos that it grinds.
Outside, just in the distance, farmers tend to their wheat, trying to bring in the harvest in preparation for the harsh winter ahead. The mountain peaks in the distance already gleam with snow.
Afghanistan has one of the lowest per capita rates of electricity consumption in the world. In 2007 only seven percent of the population had access to electricity, according to Government data. Since then, that figure has risen to about 30 percent, thanks to an increase in imported electricity and the construction of micro hydroelectric and solar panel stations. But imported electricity, which provides more than half of the country’s power, does not reach Bamyan province.
As a result, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has funded the construction of 18 micro hydroelectic power plants in Bamyan province, with a budget of $997,000 generously provided in part by the Governments of Denmark, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway and the European Union. The plants are currently generating a cumulative 196 kilowatts of electricity that is powering 2,163 households, benefiting more than 15,000 people.
These plants are not only bringing tangible improvements to the lives of the people who now depend on them for access to electricity, they are creating jobs for locals, improving relationships with the Government of Afghanistan and providing environmentally-friendly, and thus sustainable, sources of energy. And in a country where many people depend on kerosene oil, wood and cow dung for heat and lighting, they offer a clean and healthy alternative, eliminating indoor smoke.
According to the World Health Organization, every year nearly two million people around the world die prematurely from illness attributable to indoor air pollution from household solid fuel use.Take the power plant in Borghaso. The local shura—a traditional assembly of tribal elders and religious scholars—took eight months to build it, at a total cost of $62,064
About 160 families, or 1,120 people, benefit from the 12.7 kw of electricity generated by the plant. Putting the shuras in charge of the projects ensures local ownership, and is the first step in guaranteeing that the plants will actually be useful and thus maintained by the communities who build them.
The shuras not only oversee and coordinate the construction, but they also put in place a tariff system after the plants open, ensuring that they pay for themselves. In Borghaso, the shura charges a monthly rate of about 90 cents per light bulb for electricity and $1.70 per television set. The tariff is collected by the shura cashier. The two electricians manning the station—who were trained in the provincial capital through a 15-day UNDP workshop—are paid a monthly salary by the shura, from the collected tariff. The rest of the money from the tariffs is put in savings to be used if the power plant malfunctions at any point in the future.
While electricity is now providing a cheap substitute to oil lamps and smoky woodstoves in the evenings—reducing household lighting costs by almost 90 percent in addition to indoor pollution—people using the plants are also trying to figure out creative ways to make use of the electricity during the off hours of the day. The computer class in Borghoso is one example, although for now the hefty monthly fee of $10 per student in this poor village keeps enrolment low.
“These days the world is one of knowledge and technology,” said Mohamed Hakim, head of the Borghaso shura; his daughter, a second grader, attends the computer class. “Yes, the fee is a bit much—but parents are willing to pay for it, because if not equipped with these skills, our kids won’t make it in the work force.”
In Sia-Khak district, about a 20-minute drive from Borghaso, the local shura decided to build a flour mill attached to its micro hydroelectric power plant. The flour mill is able to grind 1,100 kilos of wheat a day. The mill charges one kilo of wheat for every 10 kilos that it grinds. In Kata Qala village of Yakawlang district, about a 1.5 hour drive from Bamyan province’s capital
city, the shura also decided to create a daytime computer course that would use electricity produced by their hydroelectric plant. About 30 students learn basic computer literacy in two different shifts, and pay a monthly fee of $5. The Kata Qala power plant was built in 2010, and the shura has saved about $2,000 from tariffs after paying the electricians’ salaries.
At one of Kata Qala’s regular meetings, Nabi Muzzafari, UNDP’s on-the-ground partner from the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, urged the launch of a number of projects he believes will bring tangible and positive change to the local economy.
“You should save a small amount of the money in case the power plant malfunctions, but with the rest why don’t you start an English language class or hire a teacher to provide basic literacy for adults?” he says.
“Or even better, why don’t you install two carpet-weaving stations … If you can teach 10 people how to weave carpets, you would have done wonders to their financial situation.”
Electricity is now providing a cheap substitute to oil lamps and smoky woodstoves in the evenings—reducing household lighting costs by almost 90 percent in addition to indoor pollution.
In the dynamic discussion, as members of the shura and Muzzafari weigh the benefits of different projects they can implement from the saved money, a clear picture emerges: the micro hydroelectric power plants are not only lighting the houses of these poor villagers at night, but they are also playing an instrumental role in developing the local economy of some of Afghanistan’s poorest communities.