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Lighting the path for change Eve Johnson, Pamir Energy

"Today, I needed surgery, but I have to wait for the light of tomorrow. I lie quietly in the clinic bed, watching as the opaque haze of dusk surrounds me. I wait patiently. Unfortunately, the pain does not diminish with the fading light. The seeping darkness seems only to heighten its intensity."

"We don’t have the good medications I need, as they have to be kept cold and the nurse said they were ruined by the heat of summer. I will ask my son to walk the 12km to our village to inform his three sisters and my wife of my whereabouts. Now, it is autumn. The nights are starting to cool. We know what is awaiting us with the coming of winter."

"The chill is a living memory that motivates my wife and children to walk 25km a day up the treacherous mountain path to harvest the Teresken shrub; it’s the only thing we have to heat our homes. I’ve noticed over the last 10 years that we walk farther and farther to find it. My father told me when I was a boy that they take 100 years to get to full size. I never believed him as the largest were no higher than my knee and no wider than an arm’s length. How can something so small, that burns so quickly, take a century to grow?"

"My neighbours have more options - they’ve been drying the dung of their cow for the last three months, and have a stack as tall as me to burn for the winter. I know my kids are missing school for another season, as are most of the children in the village, but we need to work together in the warmer months to prepare for the winter. If we work extra hard, maybe we will gather enough fuel to keep the school open for some of the colder months."

School heating in Karakul

"It’s getting dark. My wife will be preparing dinner now, the smoke billowing around the room as the Teresken smoulders and a hot soup bubbles on the fire. She has developed a nasty cough the last couple of years, just like her mother. A visiting nurse said it’s because of the smoke, but what can we do… we have to eat."

This is a story that is all too common to the people of rural Central Asia. A truth that resonates with hardship.

For many of us in Canada, electricity is something we’ve always had and never truly valued. For many other people around the world, access to electricity is life changing.

A group photo taken during one of many long drives, meeting people in various communities.

I have travelled on bone jarring, nerve shattering car rides along high mountain passes to villages that have redefined my idea of rugged and remote, witnessing the impact of life with and without electricity. For the past 7 months, I have had the opportunity to work as a Research Fellow with Pamir Energy. Pamir Energy is Central Asia’s first public-private-partnership, a collaborative effort of the Government of Tajikistan and the private business sector to generate and supply hydroelectricity to the residents of Eastern Tajikistan and Northern Afghanistan. The vast area it serves poses many challenges; it accounts for 47% of the country, has 3% of the population and is almost entirely mountainous. Arable land is sparse, natural disasters are prevalent and poverty dominates. Yet despite these challenges, Pamir Energy has succeeded in transforming the region’s electrical network from a decrepit utility that provided only 14% of Eastern Tajikistan with electricity in 2002 to a reliable, sustainable network that now provides 96% of residents with electricity 24 hours a day, year round. Surplus energy is benefiting the cross border region of Northern Badakhshan in Afghanistan with over 35,000 Afghans now having access to electricity for the first time.

What would you do if you had an extra 4 hours a day to spare? For the women of Northern Afghanistan, electricity has given them an invaluable gift: time. Time to study, time to make money, time to play with their children, or time to relax. Imagine how the story above could be different with access to electricity. Medical treatment would not be restricted to daylight hours. Advanced medical technology and refrigerated medicine storage would be readily available. Children would have more time to spend studying, both at school and in the evening. Electrical stoves and heaters would reduce the smoke pollution and respiratory disorders caused from wood fuel in the home. Ecological degradation and deforestation would diminish. Economic opportunities would improve with electrical equipment, allowing for increased production. In short, electricity is life changing.

What would you do if you had an extra 4 hours a day to spare?
Remote community of Gudara, Bartang valley

Before the Fellowship, I lived in the Yukon and thought I had a good grasp of wilderness and extremes. I even thought I could resonate with the hardships of living without electricity or running water in a cold environment, having chosen this lifestyle in Northern Canada. But the truth is, I always had the comfort of options, be it wood for a stove, access to good quality insulation or the ability to take refuge in a nearby warm, lit café. For the people of Eastern Tajikistan and Northern Afghanistan, electricity is not only bringing them much needed light and warmth, it is giving them the freedom to have a life with options.

Eve Johnson was part of the 2016-2017 cohort of the International Youth Fellowship Program. She was placed with Pamir Energy, an energy company opened in 2002 which has since restored 11 small hydro power plants and upgraded 4300km of old transmission and distribution facilities in East Tajikistan.

Pamir Energy was recently honoured with the 2017 International Ashden Award for Increasing Energy Access.

Since 1989, Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) has been helping to develop young Canadian leaders in the field of international development through its International Youth Fellowship Program.

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Provided by Eve Johnson

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