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News headlines focus on the violence in Afghanistan. But electric cooperatives are preparing for a different, quiet battle in that country’s Helmand province. This battle targets the poverty and darkness of lives lived without electricity.

NRECA International, as part of a U.S. Agency for International Development program, is launching a project to bring electricity to more than 5,500 households and small businesses in villages around Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand in southern Afghanistan. The project is part of a USAID program aimed at displacing poppy production by encouraging agriculture and small businesses.

NRECA International Ltd. is a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national association for electric cooperatives in the United States. NRECA International’s man-date is to transfer lessons learned in the electrification of the rural United States to developing countries, to improve the lives of their people by helping them get reliable and affordable electricity.

Decades of conflict—the Soviet invasion, the war that brought the Taliban to power, and the U.S. war on terrorism—have left much of the country’s infrastructure in ruins.

During a visit in April, Dan Waddle, NRECA International vice president of operations, and David Kittelson, NRECA International director for Central America, who will oversee the project, conducted an assessment of the area and its infrastructure needs.

“You can see some of the effects of war and violence in Lashkar Gah. As we traveled around the area, we could see substations that were hit by bullets and bullet holes through utility poles and generators,” says Kittelson.

“The resilience and the friendliness of the people were remarkable,” Kittelson says. “People were coming up to us and saying ‘thank you for coming to help us rebuild.’ ”

The plan calls for renovating a hydro-power station at Girishk, which dates from 1956. It was built to accommodate three turbines, but only two were installed. The plan recommends installing three new turbines and replacing all controls, substation equipment, and power cables, which would nearly double its generating capacity.

From there, a distribution line would be built to the Lashkar Gah area, where it would serve several small communities.

The Lashkar Gah substation doesn’t have the capacity to handle the needs of the existing population, let alone additional needs from economic growth. Afghanistan’s electric authority estimates that only 60 percent of households in the Lashkar Gah area are connected to electric service. If the Girishk plan doesn’t prove feasible, an alternative is to increase generation capacity in the Lashkar Gah grid, upgrade the Lashkar Gah substation, and add diesel generators, Kittelson says.

“Either way, we would build a completely new distribution system in the Lashkar Gah area,” Kittelson says. It is expected to take two years to complete and would provide power to about 30,000 people.

The task is a daunting one. After years of war and deprivation, many Afghans have emigrated, leaving behind a vacuum of technical and commercial know-how. NRECA International will bring in experts with experience in rural electrification design and supervision. They will look outside Afghanistan for companies that can install the lines and towers.

Another obstacle is the weather. Southern Afghanistan experiences extreme temperatures—from near freezing in the winter to up to 130 degrees in the summer.

Despite the many obstacles, “There is a sense of hope,” Kittelson says. “In the attitude of people we spoke with, there seems to be a sense of relief and a feeling that it’s time to get on with progress in this country.”

—Reprinted from Electric Co-op Today

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