Say the word 'Afghanistan', and you'll conjure up a number of associations in your listener's mind. It's a safe bet that none of them will include 'promising haven of renewable energy'. But that's a pretty fair description of what's underway in the mountainous north eastern province of Badakhshan – "the least developed part of the least developed country in the world".
The province may lack development in the conventional sense of the word – even major roads are rough, rutted mud tracks, impassable for much of the winter. It can take hours to make a journey of 30 miles, and you emerge from the jeep feeling as though you've been flung around inside a tumble drier. But Badakhshan doesn't lack resources. If peace ever returns, one distant day, its spectacular landscape will be a magnet for tourism: snowy peaks looming over richly fertile valleys bright with apricot blossom and spring wheat, watered by fast flowing rivers.
And it's these which provide a ready resource of a different kind. Here, among the last outliers of the Hindu Kush, local Afghan communities are working with German engineers and development experts to install run-of-the-river hydro plants. Six are in place to date, with a total capacity of 1.3 MW, bringing light and power to 63,000 people in homes and businesses, who until now had to rely on smoky kerosene lanterns or pricey, unreliable diesel generators. The plants are a small triumph of engineering: in an area with few 'jeepable' roads, many parts have to be carried on mule back – no small task when canals have to be carved out of the mountainsides and electricity poles erected on remote hilltops.
The six plants are part of a wider programme, Energy Supply for Rural Areas (ESRA), run by the Afghan Ministry of Energy and Water and the German overseas development body, GIZ, with the support of consultants, Integration. Together with Afghan colleagues, their staff spent three years crisscrossing Badakhshan, staying in villages, surviving an 'IED' bomb attack and, slowly, cup of tea after cup of tea, winning over local leaders to the scheme. It was painstaking but essential work. Everyone needs to be on board for the schemes to succeed: the district governors, imams and the local 'commanders' (former mujahidin leaders who still wield considerable clout). Even though the province is not a hotbed of Taliban activity, it's seen its share of attacks, and there is little doubt that the plants would be tempting targets had they not won such overwhelming local support. As it is, none has ever been hit.
While the capital costs were met with donor funding, running and repair expenses are covered by the electricity bills. At around five afghanis (£0.06) per unit, hydro power is more than competitive with kerosene or diesel - assuming the latter is even available. Local people are trained to operate and manage the plants as independent businesses, under the umbrella of the Ministry.
The effects on everyday life have been dramatic. Householders love the clean, bright electric light, compared to the smoky and highly flammable kerosene lanterns. Electric water heaters mean there's no need to light a fire – using scarce brushwood gathered from the bare hillsides – every time you want a cup of tea. Schoolteachers told me how children can study in the evening, and "don't hide away at home because they're scared that the teacher will tell them off for not doing their homework". Television makes everyone feel more connected to the outside world – particularly women, who in this very conservative society can feel isolated. "Now they gather at each other's houses to watch their favourite shows with their 'TV friends'". ('Afghan Star', the national equivalent of 'X-Factor', is particularly popular.) And local health clinics have the power, literally, to save lives which could otherwise have been lost.
The hydro's been a boon to local artisans, too. Mohammed Amir, a carpenter in the village of Farghambowl, told me that where it once took him five days to make a door, he can now do so in one, thanks to a new set of power tools. Variations on his story are repeated up and down the street of this and other village bazaars: small businesses which were once struggling – millers, tailors, blacksmiths – are now prospering. Young people who left their homes to look for work as far away as Kabul are returning to set up shop, bringing urban skills such as computer training to their villages.
The power carries with it another plus, too: in return for the wires coming over the hill, farmers have to agree to stop growing opium poppies. Such is the appeal of electricity that this condition seems to be widely observed. Daoula Mohammed, the governor of Jurm district, summed it up: "Daoula Mohammed, the governor of Jurm district, summed it up: "Ask people here what is the single most important project for them – they will always say electricity. One night there was a flood; some sediment had blocked the channel [taking water to the hydro plant]. And the next day, 100 people came from the bazaar with shovels to clear it [to make sure the power came back]… If there's a security problem, people can live with it. If there's a problem with water, they can live with it. But if people find they don't have power for just one night, they all come hammering on my door!"
When other planned plants come onstream, including one solar pv farm, over 90,000 people in the area will enjoy the fruits of clean, round-the-clock power and light. And this could be just the start. Whole swathes of the country have huge potential for plants on this kind of scale, whether driven by water, wind or sun.
No one knows just what will happen in Afghanistan when the international forces pull out in 2014. But by rooting such schemes in local communities, ESRA is hoping that they have the resilience to withstand whatever turbulent times lie ahead.
• Martin Wright is Editor in Chief of Green Futures. GIZ / Integration won one of the 2012 Ashden Awards, which reward projects that cut carbon, protect the environment, reduce poverty and improve people's lives
[Dam via Alexandru Chiriac / Shutterstock]