In the great Helmand River Valley of southern Afghanistan, stands a rockfill dam, bearing testimony to USAID’s continued commitment to the country for more than half a century. In 1953, USAID contracted Morrison Knudsen, one of American heavy construction contractors that built the Hoover Dam, to construct this dam. Standing 100 metres (320 feet) in height, spanning 270 metres (887 feet) in length, and having a present storage capacity of 1.2-billion cubic metres (27,550 acre-feet) of water, the Kajakai Dam creates the largest multi-purpose reservoir in the country. For decades, water discharging from Kajakai has traversed some 300 miles of downstream irrigation canals, which stretch across parched formidable landscape, feeding 140,000 hectares of farmland with water.

In 1975, USAID commissioned the initial installation of two 16.7 MW generating units in a powerhouse constructed at the toe of the dam. Several years earlier, viability for increasing the reservoir storage level, increasing reservoir storage volume to 2.7-billion cubic metres (62,000 acre-feet), had been confirmed. Heightening the reservoir operating level had been envisioned in the initial project design concept. In 1976, the Asian Development Bank funded design, construction and installation for eight radial gates in the Project’s service spillway. However, with the invasion of the Soviet Union into Afghanistan beginning in 1979, all constructions in progress were halted.

In 2002, USAID and other international donors, including the World Bank, the Japanese and Canadian governments, the United Nations, the Asian Development Bank and the European Union, agreed to undertake a national irrigation and power rehabilitation program. This national priority program was aimed at restoration of water supply for local communities, rehabilitating irrigation systems for farmlands and providing sufficient power for residents, industries and commerce through the harnessing of water from various rivers. Increased water and power supply will enable the country to expand irrigated farmlands and develop industrial parks, creating jobs for all Afghans.

As the major priority power and irrigation projects in southern Afghanistan, the Kajakai rehabilitation consists of two major components: First, refurbishing the existing power plant equipment and adding a third hydroelectric unit; second, completing the installation of the service spillway radial gates and completing the emergency spillway. Power plant refurbishment comprises the rehabilitation of two 16.5 MW hydro-electric units, Units 1 and 3, and the design, fabrication and installation of new 18.5 MW Unit 2. Prior to implementing the spillway gates project, a three-fold feasibility study, comprising the social and environmental assessment of the reservoir area, the Helmand Water Balance Study, and a technical analysis of the service and emergency spillways, including the installation of the eight service spillway gates, must be completed.

The prime contractor for the powerhouse project, The Louis Berger Group, an American engineering firm, subcontracted Acres International and Voith Siemens to refurbish the two existing hydro-electric units. The two turbine runners will be replaced totally and the generators will be overhauled. A Beijing-based Company, China Machine-Building International Corps, will fabricate and install the new Unit 2, being designed by MW Harza, an American firm focusing on power, water and wastewater.

Completion of the spillways and installation of the eight service spillway gates cannot begin until the viability of the project is confirmed by the ongoing studies. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under contract with USAID, is currently conducting the Helmand Water Balance Study in order to determine the viability of further expanding the Kajakai project by the addition of a second power house with capacity of additional 50 to 100 MW.

The estimated cost of rehabilitation of the existing hydro-electric units and the addition of the third unit is about $23 million. The cost of completing the spillways and the installation of the second power house will be determined, once the ongoing studies are completed. The rehabilitation of the existing hydro-electric units and installation of the third unit will be completed by December 2006. Completion of the spillways will take about two years once the decision to proceed is made. The second powerhouse will take approximately two and a half years to complete once the construction is approved.

“This is the most productive power and irrigation projects in Afghanistan,” said Paul Collins, program advisor for USAID-funded hydro and irrigation projects and who participated in the implementation of the original Kajakai power plant back in the 1970s. “USAID’s efforts are remarkable because they are covering the rehabilitation of the dam’s power plant and irrigation canals and drainage systems after 23 years of war, civil strife and gross neglect.”

Integral and large part of the Kajakai project in all of its phases is capacity building. When the initial Kajakai project was built, Helmand Arghandab Valley Authority (HAVA) and the Helmand Construction Company (HCC) were established and staffed with trained personnel. HAVA was modeled after the American Tennessee Valley Authority and was responsible for operating and maintaining the Kajakai power project and the irrigated areas downstream.

HCC was responsible for all aspects of construction in the area. Over the years of conflict, both organizations lost their staff and became nonfunctional. Presently, a vacuum exists in the institutional area, but USAID is taking steps to either re-establish the old institutions or set up new ones to meet the construction and maintenance needs of the region.

Once the third hydro-electric unit is added, Kajakai will be capable of producing more than 50 MW of electricity at the current reservoir level. When the reservoir level is raised by about 11 meters through the completion of the spillways, the power output will increase to about 65 MW.

The Kajakai project may be capable of producing as much as 150 MW by adding the second powerhouse, assuming that the ongoing Water Balance Studies confirms acceptable water flow regimes upstream and downstream of the dam. In addition to power needs, the Kajakai project must be able to meet downstream irrigation and flood control needs and obligations of water flow resulting from a water treaty with Iran. Currently, the largest hydro-electric project in Afghanistan is the Naghlu Power Project in east of Kabul with 100 MW of installed capacity. This hydro-electric plant is also slated for complete overhaul and restoration.

Hydro-power plants produce about 24 percent of the world’s electricity, providing power for more than one billion people. The world’s hydro-power plants have an installed capacity of about 675,000 MW, and they produce an energy output equivalent to about 3.6 billion barrels of oil.
Once completed, Kajakai will continue being the major renewable energy resource in southern Afghanistan, furnishing both power and water for decades into the future. The dam construction was started over 50 years ago and the power plant has been in operation for 30 years.

“Every year, USAID spends about $12 million in diesel fuel to keep the lights on in Kandahar and Lashkar gah,” said Tom Hayes, Deputy Manager for Power of the Office of Infrastructure, Energy and Engineering of USAID mission in Afghanistan. “And this project will provide electricity for the Kandahar-Helmand region, saving all of that money for other, more productive uses. Where available in existing projects hydro-power is the most sustainable and least cost form of energy.”

Reclaiming the desert land through well-designed, Kajakai-supplied irrigation will expand the land downstream of the dam available for cultivation from 140,000 to 200,000 hectares. This will encourage refugees and internally displaced persons to return to the region and settle on irrigable land, also boosting agricultural sector productivity.

Story by Katrin Park, for USAID OFFICE OF INFRASTRUCTURE, ENERGY AND ENGINEERING, February 2005. (Photo via Creative Commons)