Lights out in Afghanistan: U.S. re-engineering efforts fall short

Tarakhil

Electrical transmission lines near Kabul, Afghanistan

Returning to the subject of Liz Boatman’s recent post about the importance of ethics training in engineering, consider the following scenario. A major construction project worth hundreds of millions of dollars is in the planning stages. The project, if it is carried out, will be paid for with federal funds. In deciding whether or not to proceed with a particular option, do you (a) rely on a report produced by a firm that stands to earn tens of millions of dollars if a certain option is selected or (b) carry out an independent inquiry to determine the best course of action? The correct answer should be obvious, but USAID, facing a similar decision during rebuilding efforts in war-torn Afghanistan, inexplicably went with option (a). It’s not surprising what happened next.

In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum, executive editor Glenn Zorpette reports on the failure of the U.S. to modernize Afghanistan’s electrical infrastructure despite spending tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on the effort over the last eight years. The centerpiece of his article is the Tarakhil power plant outside of Kabul. Tarakhil is a large diesel-fueled generator that was constructed between 2006 and 2010 under the direction of USAID. Massively over budget and years behind schedule when completed, it currently generates virtually no electricity. Why not? It turns out, diesel power plants are extremely expensive to operate, especially when the fuel must be transported through the mountains of Afghanistan. If Tarakhil were to operate at full capacity, its annual costs would be about one third of Afghanistan’s total tax revenue. Although cheaper options like hydroelectric generation would have made infinitely more sense economically, USAID opted for diesel largely because it was backed by a study carried out by engineering firm Black & Veatch. The problem: Black & Veatch, as the primary contractor for the project, was to earn a fixed percentage of the total project cost as profit, as dictated by the terms of their “cost-plus” contract with USAID. In other words, the more expensive the better, at least for Black & Veatch’s bottom line. Had USAID conducted their own study, they almost certainly would have gone with a cheaper electricity source.

IEEE Spectrum's Glenn Zorpette won multiple awards in 2006 for his coverage of Iraq's rebuilding efforts

USAID’s ill-conceived approach to project management is just one of many nightmarish bureaucratic and technological challenges that face Afghanistan’s rebuilding efforts. The end result is that many of Afghanistan’s residents continue to receive fewer than six hours of electricity per day, and any hopes of sparking socioeconomic revival in the region through modernization will have to wait. But perhaps the saddest and most frustrating aspect of Zorpette’s report is the fact that he wrote virtually the same article five years ago… about Iraq. At the time, Baghdad’s residents, like Afghanistan’s, received electricity for only a fraction of each day despite tens of billions of dollars invested in infrastructure development by the U.S. The inefficiencies Zorpette identified in Iraq were eerily familiar: poor oversight (by USAID and others) leading to bad decisions (to build diesel power plants where an alternative fuel would have been better) and cost overruns (due to “cost-plus” contracts with builders).

Nation-building in war-torn countries is hard, dangerous work, and it is admirable that there are qualified U.S. engineers who are willing to give it a shot. It would be unreasonable to hold their work up to the same standards as a domestic engineering project. However, many of the rebuilding problems appear to stem not from violent conflict and unpredictably of life in Afghanistan itself, but from a project management system that lacks accountability, promotes wasteful spending, and consistently fails to deliver intended results. With the lessons of Iraq fresh on everyone’s mind, it would have been nice to see signs of improvement in the quality of the work being carried out in Afghanistan. But it only got worse.

Undoubtedly, some of Berkeley’s current engineering students will find themselves working on similar projects under similar circumstances in the future. In such challenging settings, knowing how to construct, say, a technically sound power plant is just one part of what it takes to be an effective engineer. Invoking Liz’s post once more, let’s make sure the non-technical portion of the engineering curriculum at Berkeley receives sufficient weighting to ensure that our graduates know the rest of what it takes.

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