Keeper of the Kajaki dam sees dream come closer to reality

Sayed Rasoul has spent 30 years trying to bring power to Afghanistan. Then the British arrived ...
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The Independent Online

Thirty years of Afghan history has left an indelible mark on Sayed Rasoul. He was 22 when he first came to work at the Kajaki dam three decades ago. Since then he has watched one violent era after another take its toll on the country and his dam.

But somehow he has managed to keep one of the turbines going to provide electricity for his home town as the fighting raged beyond his walls. And this week Mr Rasoul's ambition to provide electricity to more than a million homes in southern Afghanistan became a very real possibility with the delivery of more than 200 tonnes of new equipment.

Thanks to one of the most audacious military missions attempted by the British since arriving in Helmand two years ago – the largest route clearance since the Second World War, involving a convoy of 100 vehicles travelling 180km (112 miles) – Mr Rasoul and his team of 40 workers can finally put their plans into action. There can be few other engineers who can claim their spare parts were delivered by 4,000 servicemen and women from six nations, protected by bomb disposal experts, attack helicopters and fast jets.

The third turbine at the hydroelectric power station will eventually help to provide electricity for 1.5 million people, irrigation for 300 miles of agricultural land, drinking water and jobs for an impoverished population. As the gently spoken site manager toured around the turbine hall building, he pointed to the irrigation tunnel where the Taliban used to hide, with bullet holes from Russian machine guns and shrapnel marks from US bombings.

On the other side of the pretty courtyard is an eerie, windowless building. The mujahedin tortured their prisoners in the basement, he says.

Outside the turbine hall is a row of trees with beautiful pink blossoms planted by the Americans who first built the Kajaki dam hydroelectric power station in 1975, unaware that they were poisonous and, according to Islamic culture, the devil's trees, because that is what Satan feeds his victims in hell.

They prove a fitting reflection of the lethal beauty of the Kajaki dam, where gushing waterfalls decorated with rainbows spill into an emerald lake set against a mountain backdrop. Just 500 metres up there are fortifications and razor wire, beyond which yet another war continues to rage, this time between the Taliban and British troops.

"It is so peaceful here – except when we have got incoming or outgoing mortars," explains the American senior engineer, George Wilder.

Mr Rasoul adds: "I have lost seven friends, very experienced people. Some were killed by bombs, some by mines, some were shot. The Russian time [occupation] was the most difficult. They killed a lot of workers. We have had a lot of problems with different regimes that have different ideas. We only have one idea – to produce power for the people of the two provinces of Helmand and Kandahar."

"He is a genius," explained Mr Wilder. "He takes nothing from scraps and makes something. I have been in this business 44 years and some of the things he does amaze me."

Among the most vital projects in the country, the massive Kajaki power station, with its 1.2 billion cubic-metres of water, has remained stagnant for years, surrounded by Taliban territory through which vital equipment and supplies could not pass.

Despite Mr Rasoul's best efforts, as well as those of three of his brothers and several cousins, it had fallen to rack and ruin. When the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) began work at the dam in 2002, the two turbines had deteriorated to such an extent that their output was reduced to just 8MW. When the Chinese engineers have completed their work on the third turbine next year, they hope its output should be 51MW.

Mr Rasoul and Mr Wilder are well aware of how much of the world's attention is focused on their small corner of the Earth. The number of generals and ambassadors who have visited the project illustrates just how important it is to the British and American governments, who want to prove that they are bringing hope and stability to Afghanistan. The initial budget was $20m (£11m) in 2004, but the engineers insist USAID's generosity has far exceeded that.

There is a huge amount to do, but the quiet Afghan in his blue dungarees and the American engineer with his diamond-encrusted ring depicting the state of Texas have forged an unlikely alliance, and are adamant they will achieve their goal. "Our project is for peace, not for fighting. We have got to finish this job," they say. Asked whether – in all the years of hardship and fighting – he ever felt like giving up on his power station, Mr Rasoul smiles widely, shakes his head adamantly and says: "No, never, never."

A history of the Kajaki dam

*The US government embarked on a massive reservoir and irrigation project and dammed the upper Helmand river 60 years ago.

*In 1975, the Americans built a power house and installed two 16.5MW turbines at the dam, providing enough power to light up the southern provinces. They left room for a third turbine, which could bring the total energy output of the Kajaki dam to 150MW – nearly 20 per cent of Afghanistan's current energy demand.

*When the Russians invaded in 1979, the US project was halted and the plant fell into disrepair.

*When US engineers returned in 2002 the plant was producing just 3MW. It had to be overhauled, the existing turbines repaired and a third installed. In addition, 150 miles (240km) of power lines were needed.