Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth and therefore a focus of German development cooperation work. Ten years have now passed since the fall of the Taliban. Since then, a lot has changed in this mountainous country ravaged by decades of war. But irrespective of the recognisable progress in the country, daily life is still dominated by poverty and inadequate infrastructure in all areas. This underlines the fact that our work in Afghanistan is far from complete.
Only a few months after the fall of the Taliban regime, the German government already began its first steps towards rebuilding the country. Energy and drinking water provision formed the initial focus. Water is an indispensable basis for life as is sufficient energy supply, and both are key prerequisites for the development of a country. Later, other aspects of life were addressed, including the process of supporting “good governance”. This primarily encompasses promoting the rule of law by strengthening justice, the provision of legal information and legal support. Measures for establishing a police force, such as those involving the German Police Project Team (GPPT) in the north of the country, go hand in hand with this. One of the central goals of this support is fighting corruption and protecting human rights. The other focuses of German-Afghan development work include improving basic and vocational education as well as promoting sustainable economic development, particularly with a view to creating sources of income for the increasingly young population.
Right at the start of the rebuilding efforts and only a couple of months after the reestablishment of bilateral relations between Afghanistan and the Federal Republic of Germany, the Stuttgart-based engineering company Fichtner successfully established various urgently needed projects in the country revolving around two pillars of its core business – energy as well as water and infrastructure. In 2002, a project was launched to renovate and extend municipal drinking water supply systems by an international consortium led by Fichtner Water & Transportation GmbH (at the time known as Beller Consult GmbH). 22 cities with a total of around three million residents were included in the programme. Since then, Fichtner has been working flat out on a whole range of different drinking water projects, mostly financed by the Federal Republic through the KfW Bankengruppe (KfW bank group).
At the current time, various orders are being carried out for projects involving supply systems in Kabul and several other cities in the Northern Provinces. Despite these ongoing civil construction projects, access to clean tap water remains an unfulfilled wish for many Afghans. In Kabul only around one third of the population has drinking water, and this number is as low as one fifth in the rest of the country. In particular, rural populations rely on water from wells and waterways. Leaky dry wells as well as sewage and waste tainting waterways and groundwater often mean that this water is unclean. The diseases resulting from this lead to high rates of child mortality and substantially impact development in the country.
There is also still a lot to be done when it comes to Afghanistan’s energy supply. In the country’s cities today only around one in four people have access to electricity, whereas this figure is estimated as low as 15 per cent in rural areas. In 2005, Fichtner GmbH & Co. KG launched its first energy project in Afghanistan: the order was to carry out a viability study for the 280-megawatt hydroelectric power plant Baghdara, 70 kilometres northeast of Kabul. This project was started but only completed to the project definition phase before being blocked for almost four years. Recently the contractual partners began working towards continuing and completing this important study for the energy supply in Afghanistan once again. In addition, Fichtner has received orders for a whole range of different tasks relating to hydroelectric plants of all sizes, as well as planning irrigation projects and conducting repairs and maintenance on dams. These orders encompass the entire range of services, from initial viability studies to tendering, construction supervision and launch. Currently, Fichtner is working on several small and medium-sized hydroelectric plants in the north of the country. These plants are almost all relatively old, mostly built by the Soviets, and have suffered heavily from the decades of war and a lack of maintenance. Now the task is to rebuild and modernise these plants wherever possible and financially viable. In Afghanistan itself, the amount of energy generated is still at an insufficient level at present. The country does not have any notable tapped deposits of fossil fuels and is greatly dependent on energy imports from neighbouring countries. That is why regenerative energies are being promoted in a wide range of different programmes, particularly by the Federal Republic of Germany. The great potential of hydroelectric power, especially in mountainous regions, should be exploited. In addition, smaller, local projects for wind energy and solar power are underway, as is village-level work to generate energy through biogas.
However, generating or importing energy is not enough, as this energy also has to be transported and brought to the people. In October 2010, Fichtner GmbH & Co. KG received an order to supply seven towns in the Northern Provinces with electricity.
From initial planning and tendering processes through to construction supervision, approvals and launch, this project once again covered the entire value creation chain from start to finish. The North East Power System (NEPS) project is multifaceted. On the one hand, it encompasses the construction of various 20-kilovolt high-voltage power lines with a total length of almost 100 kilometres. On the other, local power grids in towns had to be built, right down to the connections to individual houses. The seven towns involved in the project included the capital of Balkh province, Mazar-e Sharif, the economic hub of northern Afghanistan, as well as small villages in the mountain gorges of the Hindu Kush and municipalities in fertile valleys at the watershed of the Hindu Kush to the south.
Over and above these projects financed by the international community, economic revival can be seen all over Mazar-e Sharif. New buildings are rising up left, right and centre. In the surrounding area, the Hoffmann continuous kilns in the brickworks are in operation day and night to cover demand. In old kilns, similar to those used at the time of Alexander the Great, lime is being extracted from marble.
In addition to presenting and outlining project details, this publication is also intended to show how projects like this can be carried out by people on the ground in Afghanistan – a country which we only hear about in connection with war, death and bombings. For me as resident manager of Fichtner GmbH & Co. KG in Mazar-e Sharif, it goes without saying that the safety of all our employees, whether international or national, is the top priority above all technical and business issues. Many aspects of life here are different to those which we are used to in other, more peaceful countries. I also had to get used to the local rules, even after 36 years of working abroad in Arab and Asian countries.
Following an order from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the GTZ (German Technical Cooperation – now GIZ) set up a risk management system, which is used in all areas of the German reconstruction aid organisation.
The risk management system is intended to ensure that all employees can live and work in the greatest possible safety. To ensure that this security system can be effective, set rules have to be followed, some of which substantially affect private aspects of life and work patterns. For instance, private cross-country drives are only made in exceptional circumstances for understandable safety reasons. The evening strolls through the bazaars, souks and courtyards of the old town, which are so popular in many Arab countries (indeed this was something I did several times a week in my last project at solar power plant Ain Beni Mathar in Morocco), are now a no-go. Buying supplies in town should be limited to essentials and only be undertaken together with others. All local employees are checked for their compliance to these rules and drivers/guards receive training in their obligations. Luckily, the north of the country is relatively peaceful, particularly the area surrounding Mazar-e Sharif. However, leisure activities are still largely limited to the residential building. It is clear that not everyone is able to deal with this substantial encroachment to personal freedom at times. However, it is essential to follow these rules for the good of your own safety, that of your colleagues and the project as a whole. Being prepared to make this sacrifice is essential to working in Afghanistan.
However, in general I have only had positive experiences in my relatively regular meetings with members of the council of elders in various towns involved in our projects as well as with both the young and old Afghans I have met at marketplaces. No matter where you go, you are greeted with hospitality, warmth and a willingness to help. It should be clear to foreigners that these types of meetings also mean following the elementary rules of a conservative Muslim society and Central Asian culture.
Let us hope that the still highly fragile peace in the north of the country stabilises and extends to other provinces, helping peace to establish a lasting foothold in Afghanistan.
The author can look back on over 36 years of experience in managing large international construction projects. He has worked in almost all Arab countries as well as on large projects in China and Southeast Asia. Most recently, Dirk Drewes worked as site manager for Fichtner GmbH & Co. KG at the thermosolar hybrid power plant Ain Beni Mathar in Morocco and has been serving as resident manager in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan since 2010.