Modi Unveils Biggest Afghanistan Dam After Decades of Delay

  • Modi in Afghanistan to inaugurate $290 million Salma Dam
  • India boosts ties with Afghanistan as Pakistan tensions rise

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday helped inaugurate Afghanistan’s biggest hydroelectric dam in a sign of warming ties between the nations.

The Salma Hydroelectric Dam.
The Salma Hydroelectric Dam.
Photographer: Aref Karimi/AFP via Getty Images

The Salma Dam, first planned in 1976, was completed after construction resumed following decades of fighting. The $290 million dam in Herat province bordering Iran will boost Afghanistan’s installed power capacity by about 10 percent and provide water for an area roughly the size of New York City.

“This is a project that will irrigate lands and light up homes,” Modi tweeted following the ceremony with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. “Inauguration of the Afghan India Friendship Dam is a historic moment of emotion & pride in the relations between Afghanistan and India.” Modi then headed for Qatar.

The project highlights India’s growing links with Afghanistan’s government, which is fighting an insurgency with Taliban militants who have found refuge in rival Pakistan. India has invested about $2 billion in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was toppled by U.S. forces in 2001, including the nation’s new parliament building.

‘Soft-Power Role’

“India is playing an important soft-power role in Afghanistan given the security and geo-politics of the region,” Omar Samad, former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France, said in an e-mailed statement. “The vast majority of Afghans view India as a historically friendly country with limited security-related interests.”

Ghani honored Modi by awarding him the nation’s highest medal for India’s efforts in Afghanistan, according to an e-mailed statement from the Presidential Palace. The dam is the end of the "first generation" of India’s largest projects and Afghanistan hopes to soon start a "second generation of such large and sustainable projects," Ghani said.

Modi arrives for inauguration of the Salma Dam on June 4.
Modi arrives for inauguration of the Salma Dam on June 4.
Photographer: Aref Karimi/AFP via Getty Images

Situated on the upper reaches of Hari Rud River, the 107 meter (650 foot) high dam will generate 42 megawatts of power and irrigate about 80,000 hectares of land by next year, according to the fact sheet issued by the president’s office.

Project Stopped

Construction on the project stopped in 1981 after the then-Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. It restarted after the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban led to a government that was friendly with India.

Indian engineers were transported via helicopter from Kabul once a month to visit the dam site, according to the Afghan government. All the materials and equipment for the project were transported through Iran to avoid Pakistan -- India’s main political rival.

Modi and Ghani were in Iran last month to sign a three-nation agreement to develop the Chabahar port. The deal, described by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as partly political, is designed to increase ties among Afghanistan, India and Iran.

Tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are rising as Taliban fighters resist peace talks aimed at ending the 15-year conflict. A U.S. drone last month killed the Taliban’s leader while he was traveling in Pakistan.

In March, the Taliban attacked the Indian-built parliament building three months after its inauguration. The strike only caused minor damage.

Afghanistan imports much of its electricity needs from neighboring nations such as Uzbekistan. Ghani vowed during his election campaign to lead the nation toward energy self-sufficiency.
 
The Salma Dam is a “momentous step” toward that goal, his office said in a statement.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the month of the parliamentary attack.)

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