Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani formally inaugurated the $290-million Salma Dam on Saturday, jointly pressing a remote-control button that sent water surging through turbines which will provide up to 42 MW power to the country’s most rapidly-growing industrial hub.
Water from the dam will also irrigate a region devastated by a 15-year drought that has ravaged the countryside.
“India will not forget you or turn away,” the Prime Minister promised Afghans in a speech televised live on major Afghan stations. “Your friendship is our honour; your dreams are our duty.”
The last of a series of major Indian infrastructure projects initiated after the Taliban regime was evicted in 2001, the Salma Dam is expected to help Afghanistan capitalise on opportunities that will open up once the Chabahar project, linking the port in Iran to Central Asia’s road and railway networks, is completed.
Prime Minister Modi’s speech appeared designed to address mounting concerns in Afghanistan over the country’s economic future, as Western aid begins to get drawn down in response to deteriorating security conditions and a sharp reduction in foreign troop levels.
The importance of the relationship was underlined by Afghanistan’s decision to award Modi its highest civilian award, in recognition of the sustained support provided to the country by three successive governments.
A large part of Herat, where terrorists believed to be linked to ISI-backed jihad commander Jalaluddin Haqqani had struck India’s consulate days before Prime Minister Modi’s swearing-in, were locked down during Saturday’s event. However, key parts of the city had been festooned with Indian and Afghan flags, for a celebration local residents said was unprecedented.
In the city’s ancient book market, shops had been covered with banners greeting Modi. Local children playing cricket in the market square behind the famed Grand Mosque told The Indian Express that they had named their teams after the two countries in honour of the occasion.
The two leaders, government sources said, had considered the possibility of visiting the dam site, but were advised against it by their security details, since the helipad at Salma could accommodate only one helicopter at a time.
Salma Dam is designed to irrigate fields in 640 villages in the districts of Chist-i-Sharif, Obe, Pashtun Zarghun, Karokh, Gozara, Injil, Zindjan, Kohsan and Ghoryan. It would also bring electricity to more than 2.5 lakh homes for the first time, in addition to powering Herat’s growing industrial needs – now powered by imports from neighbouring Iran and Turkmenistan.
However, the task of constructing the irrigation and rural electrification systems lies with Afghanistan’s government, which is yet to build key power substations and networks to deliver water to villages along the Harirud river.
India’s public-sector Water and Power Consulting Corporation – which, interestingly, was born after Afghanistan requested New Delhi’s expertise for hydroelectric projects in 1968 – will continue to remain involved in the project for at least three more years, as local engineering staff are trained to manage the project.
The Prime Minister thanked Afghanistan’s security services for protecting Indians. “They put themselves in the line of fire so that their Indian friends are safe,” he said. “This is the nobility of your heart and the strength of your friendship.”
In his speech, Modi quoted the iconic Sufi preacher Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti – whose home village lies at the foot of the dam – as saying “human beings must have the affection of the sun, the generosity of the river and the hospitality of the earth”.
“He not only had the magnificent landscape of his ancestral land in mind, he could also be describing the Afghan people,” the Prime Minister said.