THE ROADS OF MERIT
The only flat and straight road that you can find in Bhutan lies on the southern border with India in Trongsa District. It runs for about 30 kilometers from the border town of Gelephu to Sarpang. This stretch of road comes as a relief to any person that would be car-sick in Bhutan because every other stretch of road in the country is a continuous series of bends and turns. As the UNCDF colleagues explain as we are driving to the project sites : ‘every turn is a gamble with your life here’ – there could be a truck coming the other way at high speed and you do not see it until you take the bend.
Ever since the first national development plans were launched in the late 1960’s, roads are a priority for the government of Bhutan. It remains an endless logistical challenge that takes a heavy toll on the national treasury. While land slides are not a new phenomena in the country, climate change is doing nothing to help. The tropical monsoon rains are stepping up the challenge; the rains are becoming more intense and abrupt and the rugged terrain has become more fragile. As a result of this combination, landslides have become a recurring problem.
The country is not very big yet transport is a major hurdle to development aims. Access to basic services for rural populations can take hours, sometimes days when the roads become blocked by land slides. Here on the way to Zhemgang (Photo - right), excavator drivers risk their lives clearing the roads – and stop the traffic for a few hours at a time to push massive rock boulders to make way for the roads below.
The roads are a gateway out of poverty – farmers that constitute a major percentage of the population need to sell their produce. As Ugen Penjor Norbu, LoCAL Evaluation Consultant for the LoCAL project explains, farm roads are essential and have been the focus of major climate adaptation projects. ‘There is a conscious effort from the communes to improve the farm roads so that they are more resilient to climate. Recently they have come up with the New Farm Road Development guidelines which provides the basic standards that the farm roads need to have’.
In Upper King, in the Gewok of Buli, Zhemgang district, a new farm road was build with the help of the LoCAL project. This opened up the market for many people in the area and lifted them out of poverty. The road was not usable during the rainy season and when it was possible to use it, people would take a day’s walk to get to the other side. The project received the highest attention of the local government who appointed staff from various Ministries to oversee the implementation: on top of the road workers, rented out with the excavators, the project was supervised by the local district authorities on a regular basis with extra staff for the project: a construction engineer and a staff of the Ministry of Agriculture, Mr Karma Tonzin. ‘Normally the Gewogs have only one engineer but in this case, they appointed one full time farm road engineer specifically for this road, with one work technician, district engineers, a supervisor and me.’
The farm road stretches for over 65 kilometers in a place that used to be isolated. The logistical challenge was enormous as Karma Tonzin explains: ‘The trucks to carry excavators could not come here – so the excavators had to be ‘walked’ all the way. It was very expensive because everything took time. The excavator was rented by the hour at the cost of approximately 30USD. Everything had to be brought from the valley on horseback, even the fuel. We were sleeping along side the road because there was no human settlement here – and some of the road contractors were not used to these conditions – many of them ran away – that was one of the things that delayed the project the most’. The project took seven months to complete and as Karma recalls, ‘It was a memorable experience – both in the good and the bad sense. Bad because it was so hard but looking back, it was a good experience because we learned so much from it. I don’t think that any other road in Bhutan would be as hard to build as this one’
The road was renovated on a stretch of 30 kilometers using various techniques such as drains and land retaining walls. In places, the water is driven from drains over carefully-build reinforced pavements. Because of budget constraints the road is not paved all the way but the project focused on the most vulnerable places. Where the project did not provide additional construction efforts, one can see the effect of the heavy rains – the drains are eroded to depths of over 2 meters (Photo - right).
Karma explains: ‘this is the effect of climate change – the rains are abrupt and intense and they strains the structures to the limit’.
The paved road runs up the hill and down on the other side of the mountain, bringing a new life to the people there. It passes through a very thick vegetation cover area and brings access to over 1000 households between two districts in a zone called the Upper King – the name has become a joke for the staff here – they always tell their friends they are going to the UK.
But not all of the project brought benefits as Karma explains: since the road was build, the community has been using some of the forest resources and legal (controlled) logging has started. ‘But the benefits far out-weight this negative aspect – this district is actually one of the most forested in Bhutan so the impact is very limited’
Karma continues: ‘This is now the most important road in this area. It is the only way between the two districts on either side of this mountain. Since the road was made, people started buying cars and set up businesses. They are so happy that they have visited the Gewok and are asking to make a celebration. They want to thank the authorities and have said they want to pay for the event…You know in Bhutan, when you make a road, people believe that it brings you merits…’ he says with a beaming smile that says a lot about the achievements of the project.