Sunday, October 23, 2011

From Elephants to Cell Phones - Amazing Progress Underway

As Americans and children of the electronic age we are hard-wired to expect progress to be rapid, measurable and almost visible. Raised in the age of "planned obsolescence" we expect our cell phone to need an update on a monthly basis and to last a year or two before it is hopelessly outdated.

It should therefore not be a surprise that a country that I have had described to me as "biblical" will create frustrations for soldiers and civilians who drop in for 6-12 months with a burning desire to "fix" things. Perhaps it is also because of a very human desire to assign a deep meaning to a trip that implies hardships of separation and anxiety. As is often the case, such things are viewed clearly most through the lense of youth, and my 10 year old son captured this expectation perfectly with his optimistic observation that "it sounds like you’re saving the country Dad". I was both deeply touched and a bit depressed as I wondered if this vision of my omnipotence stemmed from my effort to describe my visit to a local village irrigation project in terms he would grasp, but had perhaps come out like Rudyard Kipling's "white mans burden". On the other hand, it could be his own amplification of the tasks I face and the certainty of "success" which help him justify my absence. Regardless - it is difficult to find the right mental framework for living and working in Afghanistan, as it should be realistic about our place and role as outsiders, while still serving to explain things to "the homefront".

For similar reasons it is easy to overlook the positives here, and the ten year increase in life expectancy and tenfold increase in the number of students in school that has occured over the last decade are often overlooked. As we give our full effort to "victory" we struggle to understand why many Afghans live in mud dwellings and practice subsistence agriculture, and watch the ongoing struggle with ambivalence towards both the government and the various insurgent groups waging a violent but intermittent struggle which ebbs and flows with weather, harvest season, and other mundane concerns that take precedence over engaging the enemy.

Accordingly, it was a genuine pleasure to visit a development project that suggested the pace of progress is really quite remarkable. At the end of the 19th century the government of Afghanistan decided to develop a hydropower plant in Jabul Saraj (a few miles up the road from my base) to power what would become a major industrial center for Afghanistan, sporting textile manufacturing, agricultural processing facilities, and other light manufacturing industries.

The four massive turbines manufactured in Schenectady, NY were shipped to Pakistan, brought overland by the same routes used by NATO supply convoys, and up to the border of Afghanistan. From there, the roads and vehicles were unable to handle the multi-ton machines, which were then loaded onto a team of elephants to take them over several hundred miles of rugged terrain. After their arrival and installation they have been in service for a century with only rudimentary and erratic maintenance, though their output eroded steadily to a point where only minor residential needs are now met by the facility.

Don't Build 'em Like They Used To...

Just below the old plant a new structure is rising which will hold five new turbines, each of which is capable of producing a fairly modest 500 kw - or enough to power the same number of U.S. homes. Nonetheless, if it were hooked up to the current electrical grid this output would literally melt the wires and blow out the nearest transformers - as it represents a 50 fold increase from the current flow.

Given that a key factor in the evaporation of industrial activity in the area was the loss of reliable and affordable electricity - it is exciting to be part of bringing back an essential ingredient for economic growth. The harder part will fall to Afghan investors and leaders to harness, channel and maintain the energy flow, but that has happened before and is underway now.

Anyhow - I'm missing the pics for this outing - but am going to throw it on anyhow - and plan to clean things up later so my momentum keeps up...

1 comment:

  1. Keep up the momentum, loving it. It's nice to hear the positives, because, as you say, they don't get reported on enough nor validated. Thanks for doing that and keep up the brave and meaningful work.