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Background Kajaki Dam in Kajaki District Helmand Province:
Having been part of US aid ambitions for over half a century, the dam became a centrepiece of the British army’s attempts to win “hearts and minds” in southern Afghanistan, the spiritual home of the Taliban. In 2008, 2,000 British troops hauled a 220-tonne generator across the Helmand desert. The five-day effort was touted as one of the most heroic British army operations since the second world war. However, years later the hydroelectric turbine remains unassembled. The volatile security situation has made it impossible to deliver the 700 tonnes of cement required to install it.
Route 611 to Kajaki runs through the opium country of Sangin, the heart of the Taliban insurgency in Helmand. Kajaki also neighbours Musa Qala district, highly valued by British troops, which earlier this month fell temporarily to the Taliban.
One of the most delayed projects in aid history, the Kajaki dam was initially built with American funds in 1950s as a prestige project to showcase modernisation of the developing world. Today, it stands as a monument of failure in a country colloquially known as the graveyard of empires.
The double purpose of the power plant is to irrigate farmland and power the southern region, chiefly the city of Kandahar. In the 1970s, USAid mounted two turbines, but the Soviet invasion in 1979 thwarted plans to install a third, which has since become known as the “ghost bay”. In its first two decades, the project to power Helmand devoured 20% of Afghanistan’s national budget, in addition to vast sums of American aid money.
Plans to install the third turbine in Kajaki were resumed in 2001, but violence impeded the efforts from the beginning. The original estimated cost of installing the turbine was just under $17m (£11m), with planned completion in 2005. Even as American forces pulled out of Afghanistan, USAid pledged $75m, swelling the cost for all six components of the so-called Kandahar Helmand Power Program to $345m. That is $32m more than what the aid agency said could be spent before the program became unviable, according to the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar).
With dwindling international aid, the power supply to the south has become even more insecure. Kandahar is also meant to receive electricity from a power plant in the Shorandam Industrial Park, a $7.8m (£5m) a flagship programme of international aid in southern Afghanistan. However, according to Sigar, there are no plans in place to secure electricity for thousands of factories and homes when the US Department of Defence realises its plans to cut funding for diesel this month. In an April 2015 letter to Congress, Sigar said: “We are unconvinced that there are plans in place to ensure there is a reliable and sustainable power source for this strategically important city.”