Doctors in northern Afghanistan are struggling to cope with more frequent power cuts this winter that have highlighted the country’s dependence on electricity supply from Central Asian states.
The electricity board, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (Dabs), says it gives priority to hospitals at times of reduced power supply, but doctors in two northern provinces said extended power cuts last week severely affected services despite having backup generators.
“On Wednesday, we didn’t have power the whole day. Then on Thursday, we had about 10 hours of power. But today again we haven’t had power all day,” a doctor at a private hospital in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, told The National.
“We are managing the problem by using the hospital generator. However, we can’t use a lot of equipment on generator at the same time, so we have to decide which emergency is more important.
“Also, fuel has been getting expensive and it is not an affordable method of running a hospital. Unless the power issue is resolved soon, we will not be able to continue like this. And I am aware other hospitals are suffering similarly.”
The doctor, who has not been identified for his safety, said there were more power cuts than usual this year.
“We hardly faced any power cuts in Mazar. Yes, in wintertime there were shortages, but not like this. The most we would lose power in previous winters was for 30 minutes to an hour a day.”
Afghanistan relies on power from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran for nearly 80 per cent of the 1,600 megawatts it requires. The remainder comes from domestic sources such as hydroelectric dams, fossil-fuel power plants and solar energy, says Mohsin Amin, an Afghan policy analyst and energy expert.
Dabs spokesman Hekmatullah Maiwandi said the power cuts last week were the result of technical problems in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan’s biggest power supplier.
“We were able to cover some of the shortages from the newly connected line from Turkmenistan. But provinces along the northern region were affected,” Mr Maiwandi told The National.
He said Afghanistan receives about 460MW of electricity from Uzbekistan, of which 280MW are for the capital Kabul.
About 15 provinces including Balkh are supplied from power lines running south from Uzbekistan to Kabul.
A doctor in another northern province, who asked for his identity to be withheld, agreed that the problem had become worse this year.
“We are witnessing a higher number of power outages than usual. We rely on a steady power supply to do our jobs to save lives,” he said.
“Without power we can’t use ECG machines, or oxygen ventilators, or conduct minor surgeries or even warm the room for the patients.
“This winter was particularly bad and we had many patients who were shivering because of the cold.”
An increase in power disruptions since the Taliban insurgent group seized power last year has raised speculation among Afghans that they are the result of tension between the Central Asian states and Afghanistan’s new rulers.
The Taliban’s Defence Minister Mohammad Yaqoob this month publicly demanded that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan return the planes and helicopters that Afghan Air Force pilots used to flee the country as the insurgents seized power last August.
Two days later, Uzbekistan’s electricity supply to Afghanistan suddenly dropped by 60 per cent, raising concerns that the move was retributive.
Uzbekistan blamed technical problems for the cut, which lasted for three days. Dabs said it caused blackouts in 16 provinces.
Mr Amin dismissed concerns about power supply being used to pressure the Taliban government.
“The problem was technical and not political,” he told The National, explaining that issues within the synchronised power grids of the former Soviet nations can have a cascading effect on the entire region.
“Just a week before the blackout, officials from Dabs and the Ministry of Energy and Water went to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and extended the power agreement with Afghanistan for 2022,” Mr Amin said.
“According to my sources, the Taliban have even made a payment of about $25 million, of the total liability of $120m, to the four major countries that supply electricity.”
Mr Amin said it was not clear how the government managed to arrange the payment, given the international sanctions imposed on Afghanistan's banking system and a freeze of its overseas reserves after the Taliban takeover in August.
The sanctions have affected many foreign-funded projects that could have eased the country’s dependence on imported electricity, he said.
"Lack of capital makes it impossible to finish energy projects that were under way when the situation deteriorated last year," he said.
These include small-scale hydroelectric and solar projects for rural areas that were to be provided through the World Bank’s Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Programme in collaboration with the Afghan government.
Among the larger projects to be affected is the 500 kilovolt transmission line to supply 2,000MW from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"This was funded by Asian Development Bank but with recent sanctions on Afghanistan, investors have halted their funds fearing strong reactions from the US and European countries. It is tragic because the project was about 80 per cent completed, there is just the last bit of physical effort required to finish it,” Mr Amin said.
“Even the equipment had arrived in Afghanistan, but unfortunately the project is now in limbo.”