On the Edge of the Future, continued

Panjshir Province

What Afghanistan’s north-central Panjshir Valley lacks in civil infrastructure, it makes up for in relative peace and solidarity. The province held off the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. And it lays claim to abundant natural resources, including wind, sun and flowing water.

So it’s not surprising that development efforts in this region have emphasized reliable green power. For example, in November, the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team finished repairs on a micro-hydropower station—damaged by flash flooding in 2007—in the Rokha district.

PRTs are quasi-military units led by NATO nations involved in the Afghan conflict. The teams combine military personnel with civilian experts. State department employees head the Panjshir PRT, which also includes U.S. Air Force and Department of Agriculture personnel, as well as members from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The repaired station’s two generators supply 60 kilowatts of power to about 400 households in and near the village of Abdawa, along with civic buildings like the local community center and mosque. 

Sixty kilowatts is not much juice—just enough to power about 60 average American homes. Yet, it’s an ample supply for Abdawa’s current needs, which include compact fluorescent lights, a lot of cell phone chargers and a few television and satellite dishes.

“Power is the biggest thing that a lot of these small communities want,” says Air Force Capt. Patrick Kolesiak, a civil engineer with the Panjshir PRT. “Luckily, the province has a lot of rivers and side valleys, which gives us the opportunity to develop hydropower on a small scale.”

In considering sustainable development in Afghanistan, it’s impossible to overlook the country’s precarious peace, or to understate the controversial, ongoing presence of NATO forces. Still, the green power projects are remarkable for how they interweave building capacity for local governance with forward-thinking environmental and security concerns.

The reconstruction team coordinated its work with a local community development council. These councils are elected by the local villagers as part of Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Program, which promotes grassroots-run development efforts in the country’s many rural villages. 

In line with the program, local development councils control funding and decision-making. This allows them to work directly with resources such as PRTs, eliminating many of the money-consuming layers of contracting in traditional top-down aid programs. 

The community development councils are elected by a secret ballot, and manage their projects and expenditures transparently. The idea is to establish democracy, public participation and accountability as normal components of village governance.

Air Force 1st Lt. Dustin R. Koslowsky, another civil engineer assigned to Panjshir, says the PRT’s practices help build the local capacity for good governance. “By getting them involved … and bringing in their own engineers to assure the quality and learn construction practices, we help teach them to manage contracts and requirements.”

Koslowsky says the biggest challenges the Afghan people are facing include things taken for granted in the United States. “Developing a budget, prioritizing requirements, figuring out what people want—that’s all happening here for first time.”

Afghanistan needs to develop sustainable power that doesn’t require diesel to run before it can move past subsistence agriculture and into economic development, says Koslowsky. “Once we bring that sustainable power, the country can stand on its own feet and can become an ally of the U.S. and the Western world.”

Local participation in the Abdawa micro-hydro repair was crucial to coordinating a successful project, according to both officers. “They have to take a vested interest in the program,” says Kolesiak. “Where they don’t, it’s difficult if not impossible for us to undertake a project.”

Koslowsky describes his encounter with the micro-hydropower station operator. “He’s very passionate about his work.” During one of the final inspections of the installation, “[he] took us down to the canal and pointed out an area where he knew problems were going to be in the future.”

The encounter left Koslowsky hopeful about the local commitment to clean energy development. “His having that familiarity with over a kilometer of canal—he’s already taking the first steps toward preventative maintenance on his power plant. It’s a level of ownership that we appreciate very much.”

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