Bringing light to Afghanistan's villages

Men in the mountain
Villagers work high in the Hindu Kush to build the aqueducts that will feed the micro hydro power plant below. The plant will provide electricity for all the families in the village at the base of the mountains. Photo credit: UNDP/NABDP

At night, apart from the occasional flickering light of a kerosene lamp, Amir Hussain's village used to be shrouded in darkness. Until recently, the 150 families living in Sarasyab Shekhani, in Afghanistan’s remote mountainous northern Samangan Province, didn't have access to electricity.

Highlights

  • Since 2002, the UNDP supported National Area Based Development Programme, has implemented over 3,300 projects like this hydro scheme across Afghanistan, with a budget of more than US$ 520 million.
  • By October 2013, 127 micro hydro power plants had been built, benefiting close to 150,000 people
  • 52 new micro hydro projects are planned for 2014.

"My children could not attend school because they were helping me earn money to buy kerosene," Hussain, a local farmer, says. "I wished our country would find peace so that we could progress and our children could go back to school. I thought about them being able to study in the evenings with the help of electricity."

Access to electricity is a problem across Afghanistan, where only 33 percent of rural households have only occasional and unreliable access to power. In remote rural areas such as the village of Sarasyab Shekhani – located north of the Hindu Kush mountain range – the number of families whose houses boast electricity is as low as eight percent. Most residents resort to burning expensive kerosene, scarce firewood, often sourced from local forests, or animal dung to produce heat and light.

To respond to these needs, UNDP and the Afghan government– are funding the construction of micro hydro power plants in these remote areas. Micro hydro is a type of electric power generation that relies on the natural flow of water, rather than large dams, so the flow of waterways if usually less interrupted that with large scale power generation projects. In Afghanistan, these small, environmentally sustainable power plants typically produce about eight kilowatts of energy – enough to provide villages with household lighting and energy to run a few small businesses, such as grain mills.

Through the scheme, operators are trained and put in charge of running and maintaining the plants. The families pay a small amount every month to use the electricity, which is less than what they would normally pay for kerosene or other sources of light generation and goes toward taking care of the units.

In another village, called Haji Said Ahmad Tajik Ha, one of the UNDP supported power plants not only brings electricity, but also pumps much-needed water from wells to an elevated tank. When households get running water through the scheme, women and girls, who are usually in charge of collecting water from remote sources, have more time to dedicate to their education and income-generation, says UNDP.

"The micro hydro power plants not only provide electricity and water, but they also help children progress in their education and provide unskilled labourers with employment and valuable training and experience in building these plants," says Daud Rahimi, Programme Manager. "With these and other projects, we have created more than 5 million work days for people in rural communities, which helps develop the local economy."

Access to electricity has changed the lives of many Afghans living in rural areas. For Hussain, an unskilled labourer, employment was hard to come by. However, he was able to learn concrete pouring and stone masonry by helping to build a small electricity plant for his village. Hussain's wife, Fatima, has also doubled her income as a tailor, as electric lighting allows her to keep her business open for longer. In addition to earning approximately 2,000 Afghanis (US$ 40) a month from her business, she is now also able to run literacy classes for women in the evenings.

At nightfall, Hussain's village no longer recedes into darkness. In his home, his nine children sit beneath an electric light bulb and do their homework.

"The best benefit I have received is getting rid of kerosene and having my children attend school regularly," Hussain says. "Two of my daughters now rank first and third in their class."