As poverty and hunger grow in the country, the new government scrambles to meet its electricity debt obligations, facing the grim prospect of Afghanistan plunging into darkness.
It is getting dark and Zabihullah Bawar, a 34-year-old former construction worker, seems anxious as he rushes towards his old mud house in Kandahar. He uses his mobile-phone torch to lighten the room he shares with his family of four. The home’s small solar battery is broken and the family will spend the cold night of November 25 in nothing but candlelight.
Zabihullah has been jobless for the last four months and has no money to get the battery repaired.
The government-run construction and development projects have halved since the Taliban grabbed power in Afghanistan in mid-August. As a result, hundreds of thousands of laborers have lost their jobs.
Zabihullah worked as a daily-wage construction worker. With much of the building activity coming to an end, he could only find work a handful of days in the past three months.
"Sometimes, we don't have anything to eat for several days. I can't buy powdered milk and medicine for my one-year-old son."
While the economic prospects have severely shrunken, the public services that depend heavily on an uninterrupted power supply are being affected, too. To keep offices, universities and hospitals running, the Taliban will have to keep the country's electricity grid functional.
There are presently 8 to 10 hours of power outages on a daily basis in Kabul. The cold weather, coupled with difficult economic conditions, has made life difficult in the country. Other provinces and rural areas endure power outages for longer hours.
The Taliban has a difficult road ahead. Afghanistan owes millions of dollars to neighbouring countries that supply electricity to the war-torn nation.
Piling debt and frozen aid
On November 1 2021, SAGR, the US government's leading oversight authority on Afghanistan reconstruction, reported that the Taliban’s interim government faces severe revenue shortages in addition to potential technical and personal difficulties.
The new government has to pay its electricity debt of $110 to $130 million with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran.
Afghanistan relies heavily on electricity imports from these countries. Its domestic power production does not meet the country’s energy needs. The total installed capacity for domestic power production is around 700 megawatts, while Afghanistan’s Ministry of Energy and Water places the country's electrical needs at 2000 megawatts.
The Taliban only recently resumed the collection of electricity bills from consumers in Kabul and nearby provinces. Collections have been delayed since the Taliban's takeover in August due to the fact the country's banking system was rendered dysfunctional. Also, the new regime took a while to appoint leaders to the country’s power department, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS).
One official, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells TRT World, “After several rounds of talks, we could convince the banks to keep the electricity bills payment desk open even if the branches are not able to provide other banking services”.
The official also said that DABS has been collecting more than $1.4 million (100 million Afghanis) in revenue on a daily basis since early October.
DABS spokesperson Hekmatullah Noorzai told TRT World that they are in talks with neighbouring countries about paying the debts. "We will start the process of making the due payments in the very near future," Noorzai said.
Because the previous Afghan government heavily relied on international donor support, DABS’s financial sustainability was tied to either continued assistance or the government’s capability to produce greater levels of domestic revenue.
On August 15th this year, the Taliban took over Afghanistan and the major international donors, including the World Bank and USAID, withdrew their funding from Afghanistan.
The current government is trying to encourage some countries to invest in Afghanistan's domestic power production. "We are talking to several countries. One country is interested in coal for producing energy domestically," DABS spokesperson Noorzai asserted.
It has been more than three months now since DABS has failed to pay the power debts to neighbouring countries. The payments are supposed to be made on a monthly basis.
If the Taliban are not able to pay soon, the Central Asian countries to which Afghanistan is indebted can suspend electricity exports.
In October, DABS communicated the challenges it faced in collecting domestic revenue to the neighbouring countries. Three of the four countries, except for Tajikistan, granted assurance that they will not suspend electricity exports to Afghanistan. Tajikistan is currently providing electricity to Kunduz and Baghlan, in northern Afghanistan, as the country’s electricity levels are reduced in the winter season.
Afghan energy expert and policy analyst Mohsin Amin told TRT World that, “The DABS currently lacks the ability to pay the debts all at once because the domestic revenue collection is low and donors stopped providing assistance.”
Taliban officials say they have long-term and short-term plans for improving the energy sector. "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and DABS leadership are talking to some countries about investment in wind energy and coal to generate power," the DABS speaker mentioned.
"The Emirate is also completing and building water dams to sustain energy in the country."
But for ordinary Afghans, the winter is going to be harsh and they are not well-equipped to endure the freezing temperatures. Plus the prospect of famine and disease looms large for people like Zabihullah, who is already struggling to make ends meet in the absence of work opportunities. He is worried for his two children and wife.
"If they get ill in the winter, I may not be able to afford their medicine," he said.