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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 February 2007, 12:32 GMT
Protecting Afghanistan's vital power source
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

A union flag beats and cracks in the strong wind which races across the ridge, the air cold but the sun beating down on the British troops stationed high up on the outpost.

View from an outpost protecting the Kajaki dam
The stunning vista has been the scene of fierce fighting
Mortar tubes are surrounded by sandbags and stacks of bombs wait in line on the observation post high over Helmand province.

Ankle-high string, decorated with small white bunting, distinguishes safe paths from minefields.

In the 1980s the Russian army held this ridge in Kajaki and as well as the mines, they also left behind a rusted field gun - a reminder of a different war, with a different army, fighting over the same piece of land.

The British forces had to fight hand-to-hand with the Taleban to win the beautiful view and the military advantage that comes with it.

On one side, where the mortars and guns are pointed, is the valley, flat and surprisingly green, the Taleban frontline just 3kms (two miles) or 4kms away.

And the other panoramic view is filled by a huge lake spreading out into the mountains - well-defined fingers of land that mark the shore are what is left of the hillsides flooded when the reservoir was built.

A 90-metre terraced dam pinches one end, and the glistening Helmand River snakes its way south to irrigate the prime agricultural land where the opium poppies are grown.

But the row of small and delicate pylons gives away why UK forces are here - this is not about water, it is about electricity - and the power to actually make a difference to Afghan people.

US-built

Two roaring jets of water plunge out of the hillside into the narrow gorge at the base of the dam.

A large concrete building perches on the edge of the tunnels, the overhead cables sharply heading up the cliff face and onto the ridge.

Engineer Sayeed Rasul
"When we have all three turbines working it will be a very big help for us and Afghanistan and our people.
Engineer Sayeed Rasul
A plaque bearing the American eagle says it was built in 1975 - the hydro-electric power station was donated at a time when Cold War nations were pouring money into Afghanistan to buy support at the crossroads of Asia.

And working hard to keep it running is a determined man with a long beard, who has been here since the year after the turbines started turning.

Engineer Sayeed Rasul pointed to the huge gap between the two round power generators: "Turbine one needs repairs and turbine three is working well and when turbine two arrives we will be able to generate much more power," he said.

"We have only one power station in southern Afghanistan and that is Kajaki power station.

"When we have all three turbines working it will be a very big help for us and Afghanistan and our people."

It is estimated that almost two million more Afghans will get electricity when the project is complete.

Job creation

United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Chinese and American companies are doing the work, which involves new and bigger power transmission cables across Helmand and to Kandahar.

Outflow at Kajaki dam
The project will provide electricity to nearly two million Afghans
The British troops under Nato and Afghan forces are protecting it.

A road will have to be built to bring the turbine to its new home - thousands of jobs will be created in the local area over the two or three years of the project, but it cannot start until the area is secure.

And that is a major drawback for a development which is everything this international mission is supposed to be about.

Since the British forces secured the ridge that is exactly what they have been trying to do.

The Taleban have been pushed back a few kilometres - the Royal Marines now have bases in areas that were once insurgent-held territory.

Litmus test

This week, caves in a hill used recently as firing positions were dynamited to stop them being used again and the fight has moved into the villages out in the valley.

But it is guerrilla warfare and the developers are not even here at the moment as it is deemed too dangerous for them to stay, let alone work on the power station.

The Taleban know how significant the project's success would be - jobs for locals, electricity for southern Afghanistan.

They are likely to use all the insurgent tactics they can to stop it succeeding - the Kajaki Dam will be a good litmus test in the coming months of how the mission is going.




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