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Afghanistan relies on foreign power suppliers, but the Taliban haven't paid the bills

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Afghanistan, people are worried about how they're going to keep the lights and the heat on this winter. Electricity cuts were happening there before the Taliban took power. But Afghanistan's debts are rising, and the new Taliban government has not paid its foreign suppliers.

Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Pakistan.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: It took a couple days to reach Kabul resident Najm Burhani. The unemployed 38 year old said the electricity was out all night when the first message was sent, and he didn't see it until the following day. Burhani says there's often little or no warning before the power goes out in his neighborhood.

NAJM BURHANI: (Through translator) The electricity system here is very complicated. It's not like they announce things in advance. Sometimes there's no power for a whole day. Or it might be out for five hours.

KENYON: Some of the power is locally generated. But 70% is supplied by neighbors, such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. It hasn't helped, says Burhani, that among the people fleeing Afghanistan since the Taliban captured power are a number of the country's electrical engineers.

BURHANI: (Through interpreter) There are some engineers. But you are right that some left the country. And the ones still here are not as active as they used to be. They have salary complaints. Not long ago, Jalalabad went without power for two full days before anyone came to fix things.

KENYON: The country the Taliban took over this summer was in dire economic straits. International aid donations have been halted and overseas assets frozen. Meanwhile, the electricity import bills were growing by $20- to $25 million a month.

Safiullah Ahmadzai, head of the national power company, DABS, says so far the power is still flowing. But winter is coming, and the foreign suppliers are owed some $90 million.

SAFIULLAH AHMADZAI: Up to now, they have not stated that they will stop the electricity. So we have to send the due amounts to them when the banking system is normalized.

KENYON: Which is another problem - the World Bank says more than 40% of Afghanistan's GDP comes from international aid. So it's not surprising that the banking sector was devastated by the cut-off in international funds, compounded by the rush of customers to withdraw their savings as the Taliban advanced. Ahmadzai says Afghanistan also struggles with inadequate infrastructure that can't get all the power that's needed to urban centers. This leads to outages or, as he puts it, load-shedding.

AHMADZAI: Generally, we have load-shedding in Kabul city in winter and summer due to a shortage of power because our transmission line, which was designed - it cannot transmit more power to Kabul. And Kabul is always in load-shedding.

KENYON: He says if the neighboring countries stop sending the electricity, the situation will get much, much worse.

AHMADZAI: We don't have any other sources to supply electricity to the people. And this will affect a huge impact to the people, as well as the industries, which is running right now. And it cannot be compensated.

KENYON: In Kandahar, where power is sometimes on only two to four hours a day, 30-year-old Javed Ahmad said people would love to get the power back for at least half the day, as it was under the previous government.

JAVED AHMAD: (Through interpreter) They had more contracts with neighboring countries for power. And they worked on dams to produce electricity. If the current government tries this, it will help us. But I know it's expensive and a lot of work.

KENYON: In the meantime, some wonder how long the Taliban can go without paying the bills.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "GLASS & STONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.