Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Coal, water and an Afghan problem of reality

It has been the first full day of the conference on innovations in coal production, and by the evening we delegates were ready for our evening meal. The papers today included the one from Vietnam that concluded that by 2020 the country would produce around 75 million tons of coal a year, but would still need to import another 120 million tons to meet the needs that are already predictable to meet future power needs.

It was another delegate that pointed out that by far the majority of folk were over 40, and so it was no surprise that in the evening, in a field above the village, we sat in an open wooden pavilion, and after bigos, beer, sausage, and other Polish food, sat around the fire and sang.

Around the fire

The photo does not do the group justice, since with a 3-man folk band playing trumpet, accordion and bass, the density of folk was soon about 3-times that shown, and even those of us with no Polish were singing along, as someone else said, “in French” (la, la la!)

But for a little while I, and the sole Afghan delegate, sat in a relatively quiet corner and chatted over (at least for me) a beer. And I came to an appreciation of one of the problems that I had not thought about for that country, and that I will, as a result share.

We went through the usual talk of Afghanistan being an unconquerable country (vide Alexander the Great, the British and the Russians to name but three). But then we talked about what could, realistically, be done to help the country.

I have just ( in Tuesday’s post) quoted figures on electricity availability in the country – at around 10 – 12% percent. “No”, he said sadly,”it’s about eight.”

One of the reasons that I write the Tech Talks on Sundays is that unless you understand some of the “behind the scenes” ways in which things work, you can’t understand why certain “logical” answers actually won’t.

So it is in Afghanistan. With so little available electric power (and this is not the place to explain why that is a critical rung in the ladder of progress) the thing that would cement the local affection for any “invader” would be the provision of power to the populace.

But there is a rather large snag – the operation of a significant sized power station requires a lot of water. (And the TT on that will explain why). But the one thing that Afghanistan does not have is copious amounts of water. It is not part of the world that sees the seasonal rains of the monsoon. Rather it relies on the melting of the snows that fell in the winter and the storage of water in underground tanks and cisterns. (See, among others, Kipling).

Such provision works well for individual homes, it can – under the right circumstances – store enough water for a 40-acre farm that will keep the family alive (different world - different agriculture) – but it can’t meet the needs of a 100 MW coal-fired power generating plant without a whole lot of changes.

(Oh, and a brief aside to Jerome – wind turbines are, in their place, a great alternative source of needed electricity, but in Afghanistan the winds bring the sands from the surrounding desert and in the abrasion of surfaces under wind, sand and rain attack is where I can raise a knowledgeable question of reality).

The coal in the country is found in the North and swings around the edge of the country on the East.

Coal deposits in Afghanistan (USGS)

Because of the growth of the Himalayan mountains the seams are now left in a steep (about 45 degree) incline that makes it more difficult to extract the coal. The immediately logical method of mining in such conditions is to use hydraulic monitors, as they do in New Zealand, but one gets back to the water availability problem.

Water is much more a right that is owned in Afghanistan than it is, in many other parts of the rest of the world. It is a topic that already is capable of stirring riots and anger – even in the United States, where water provision in California is now becoming a major problem.

But in the drier places of the world, such as Afghanistan (but also neighboring Pakistan) the lack of water comes at the same time as the maturing of a great increase in population ( from 24 milion in 2003 to 35.5 million in Afghanistan in 2015) and some attempt to bring industry to the country – both greatly increase water demand, while supply remains relatively flat.

It is a very difficult problem, there is coal for power, not really enough firewood for the future population demand for fuel, and there is not a lot of alternative choice. But other than burning the coal for domestic heating and cooking, how can they use it? How do they find the way to generate the electrical needs that the country has, and without which the future of the country is going to be as restricted as it might have been in the times of Alexander. The need for water is almost ubiquitous to the provision of so many forms of power, and so how do we circumvent it? Or can we?


  1. One of the usual problems at a conference is the delegates' lack of connection with the daytime weather. Has it been sunny? Or would unattended infrastructure be too susceptible to theft?

  2. Actually the weather was fine until this afternoon, when they gave us time off to go to the local apiary and sample the mead and buy the honey - when it rained heavily.

    We worked off the excellent hospitality by wandering through trails in the woods, and it was cool enough that I took a jacket, yet after a while warm enough that I carried it.

    Back to Kracow in the morning