Saturday, July 25, 2009

I Know the Reason You've Been Down

and there's just no reason.

I mean, I'm pretty sure The Format had no intention of discussing anything on this blog, I figured this would be as good a starting point as any to begin writing. And although it's a topic I'm not terribly informed about, this would be as good a starting point as any to learn.

A few weeks ago, the good folks at Registan mentioned Micro-Hydropower Plants for like, the umpteenth time. And I've heard a lot of people who I think are far smarter than me talk up the idea, but I haven't heard a good reason why yet. So I'm going to take my first post to go through the big questions and measure the practicability of the prospect, and what exactly people are expecting MHP (because if we're going to talk USGov, we're talking in acronyms) to accomplish.

For future reference, this is going to be the goal of Gazistan. Look at what people are talking about, and try to add a different angle to it. I have my biases, of course, but I'm going to do my best to keep them out. I will, however, try to find songs with lyrics tangentially related to the issue at hand. This is, hopefully, the way I are.

So the first question: what the heck is a Micro-Hydropower Plant? For questions like that...we ought to go to wikipedia for answers. And according to them, a remedial MHP is basically a waterwheel connected to generator housing. A single one is much closer to ye olde floure mille than it is to the Hoover Dam. And apparently the output is around 50-100 kilowatts per hour (more in the winter than in the summer, generally speaking). Compare this to a computer taking 65 watts an hour to operate (.13 of a percent of the low estimate above) and you can see that this is actually fairly useful. They are relatively cheap to install ($5k-$20k...I'm pretty sure this only includes the materials, though, so I'd assume more for installation in the bush of a war-torn Central Asian country. There does have to be fairly constant upkeep, but not anything that is much more difficult than your standard car tune-up.. There's more details out there, but they get engineer-y in a hurry.

Secondly: Why should money be sunk in to building these MHPs out there? What could we expect them to actually accomplish, besides sounding like a nice, do-goodery project that's great for the environment etc.? What MHP can do is provide a small amount of electricity to a relatively remote area. Or, combined, they can hook up a decent village to power. This is pretty powerful, because Afghanistan has very little infrastructure at the moment, and MHPs can provide electric power without relying on Kabul...particularly during relatively long and lean winter months. Caveat Emptor, however: MHPs would take away more power from the central government, giving more opportunities to the locality. If you're the dude in charge of electricity in your village, you have a soapbox that Karzai's friends don't. For that alone, I have trouble seeing Kabul or USMil or whoever okaying MHPs. So this whole exercise may be moot.

So who is going to be responsible for MHPs being built? Well, this absolutely legit website says that I can build my own for their low introductory price of $2975. Considering that I haven't done much with my hands since Revell, I find this hard to believe. However, the price is low enough to make it seem like something an entrepreneurial Afghanistani could do. I would bet, however, that this project is safely within USMil's Army Corps of Engineers' wheelhouse. The upkeep, as previously mentioned, is something a mechanic (or reformed bomb-maker if you want to get dichotomistic) could handle with some training. Now about those training manuals in Pashto, Dari, or what have you...

Where can you rig up an MHP? Well, this is admittedly out of my comfort zone. I don't know Afghanistan very well, and I possess a very rudimentary understanding of estuarine geomorphology. But research shows that most any swiftly-moving stream or river would work. And the really nice thing is, there are no dams, and thus no real long-term environmental issues (and I think the goal, besides, is to have a state energy grid sometime in the next couple of decades). Afghanistan certainly has rivers. They move fast...mountains will do that. Nimroz, Helmand, and Kandahar all trend towards being a little less practical, but those provinces are doing just fine, right?

To Conclude: Could large-scale implementation happen? And what would that mean? I think that even ISAF-run MHPs would result in a fragmentation of Afghanistan. If the state isn't providing energy or security, it ain't providing much. And I realize it already ain't providing much. But the best-case scenario is for MHPs to provide electricity to some more remote places until a state energy grid can be successfully implemented. As I said, the dateline for that ought to be in the next couple of decades, but I'm not sure.
And what are you hoping for electricity to provide? This is, of course, MICRO Hydropower...even linking a dozen of these to the Kabul River won't be enough to run a factory. Instead, you can set up an internet cafe, winter heating, lit streets. Nothing to sneeze at, to be certain. If anything, real, tangible, urban areas could potentially be the result of free (or subsidized) electricity. The past 8 years of war have showed that urban areas are a lot easier for ISAF to handle than the rural areas.
However, decentralized electricity does open up the opportunity for smugglers and warlords to gain control of a new commodity. If a dude like Sherzai can stay in the good graces of the Occupation, he can take control of electricity fairly quickly, making him a Putin writ-small. I'm not sure this is something that policymakers are comfortable with. And I think that assuming military protection of MHPs is fairly ridiculous...some Afghanistani businessman (or woman, right, AUAF?) is going to have to take control. And if privatized energy isn't ripe for corruption, nothing is.
Overall, I think that your opinion on MHPs is going to depend on your opinion of what Afghanistan ought to look like. I think that Afghanistan becoming a strong central state a la every other -stan (I'm sure I'm missing one of them, but I feel pretty confident in this generalization) is unrealistic. It's a shard of post-imperialist buffer zone masquerading as a state. Just because Durranis and Mohammad Daoud Khan were able to cobble something together doesn't mean we should expect Karzai to. And I think that corruption, smuggling, and general statelessness are the biggest problems right now, not Talibanization.
So where do MHPs fit in? They really help the locality become more powerful, secure, and connected. No, electricity isn't going to turn folks into clean-shaven, suit-wearing, Calvinist businessmen. But I'm of the belief that internet cafes and a sense of urban place can really do something. And I think that because MHPs won't support factories, there won't be an urban rush that can be potentially unsettling. I think that instead there is the potential to introduce a gradual sense of place within the greater fabric of Afghanistan to localities all over the country. In a buzzword or two, MHPs produce the opportunity for organic state-building.
Or, well, seething pits of corruption.

So this is my first real analytical post here, obviously, so I welcome all comments and criticism. I realize that this is very poorly-cited, and that many of my facts may be a bit touch-and-go. Also, please realize the implicit sarcasm. But I'll be posting regularly from hereon-out, so please, let me know what y'all think.