UN fears 'disaster' over strikes near huge dam

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The Independent Online

The United Nations is warning of a "disaster of tremendous proportions" after US planes bombed a hydro-electric power station close to a vast dam in southern Afghanistan.

UN officials say that the loss of electricity will increase the suffering of civilians in southern Afghanistan, which has already suffered massive damage from American air raids. They fear that further air raids risk destroying the dam itself, with catastrophic consequences for the region.

The Taliban city of Kandahar lost all its electricity a week ago, after bombs knocked out transmission from the hydro-electric power station at the Kajaki Dam in the remote reaches of Afghanistan's Helmand Province. According to diplomatic sources in Pakistan, the raids also struck a military post which has in the past been used by Arab militants of Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network.

The UN has sent Afghan employees to the isolated site to report on the extent of the damage. Initial reports suggest that the dam itself was not directly hit by the raids but, according to the office of the UN regional co-ordinator for Southern Afghanistan, even the failure of the electricity creates the risk of massive flooding and crop failures.

"In case the dam and/or the three tunnels (with regulators) leading the water out of the dam also has been damaged it may result in a disaster of tremendous proportions," says an internal report prepared by the regional co-ordinator in the Pakistani city of Quetta and made available to The Independent. "If the dam collapses the whole Helmand valley would be flooded, risking the life of tens of thousands of people in addition to destroying the lands benefiting around 500,000 people (and feeding around 1,000,000 people) ... It is crucial to have the situation at the Kajaki dam/power plant assessed."

The 48-year-old dam on the Helmand River is 300ft high, 900ft long, and holds back 1.85 million cubic metres of water in a 32-mile long reservoir. Ironically, the dam's engineering and the manufacture of the two turbines are American. The connection of the power plant with the city of Kandahar, 60 miles south-east, was one of the few development projects successfully completed by the Taliban earlier this year.

The power station provides electricity to about half a million people and to several hospitals and industries, including a large textile factory. But it also powers the machinery which controls the crucial flow of the Helmand River through the dam itself. Downstream of the dam, the population survives off fields created out of the desert by irrigation. If this water supply is disrupted, there will be severe damage to the harvest in a region already threatened by drought and food shortages.

Too little water would make it impossible to plant the winter wheat. Too much water too soon would exhaust the reservoir, causing the wheat crop to shrivel in the spring. "In addition, in the case of the long-awaited rain arriving, the dam risks bursting without a proper functioning control/regulatory mechanism in place," says the UN report. "Needless to say, the regulatory mechanism is powered by electricity."

Kandahar lost much of its electricity supply three weeks ago, when a distribution plant in the city was damaged by US bombs. Water pumps were put out of action, forcing the population to rely on wells which had already been depleted by the continuing drought. The bombing of the Kajaki hydro-electric plant has cut off power, at its source, to the entire region, including the capital of Helmand Province, Lashkar Gah.

Kandahar's central Mirwais Hospital continues to operate on a generator supplied by the Red Cross, but fuel shortages and a lack of spare parts mean that it is unlikely to run for much longer. "In view of the ongoing war and increasingly cold winter temperatures, unless international support is provided to keep the central hospital functioning it will have to close with disastrous consequences for the suffering population," the UN regional co-ordinator reports.

Diplomatic sources in Pakistan say that a contingent of Arab troops of Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida group had in the past been based at a military post close to the Kajaki dam. It is not clear whether they were present when the bombing took place, or whether the damage to the hydro-electric plant was inflicted deliberately or whether it was an accidental consequence of inaccurate targeting.

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