Building Roads, Changing Lives

Feature | 10 March 2008

Decades of conflict destroyed much of Afghanistan's physical infrastructure, including its road network. Rehabilitation and upgrading of the country's roads and highways is improving access to markets, enabling private investment, and expanding foreign trade - all key to Afghanistan's further economic progress.

Kabul - Safiullah, a taxi driver, has witnessed the improvements in Afghanistan's road network.

"Until recently, travel between Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif was very slow and only possible during daylight because of the road's very bad condition," he says. Now, because of the reconstruction of the highway, Safiullah says he "can drive to the country's north anytime, day or night."

"In addition to shortening overall travel time, the improved road has reduced the amount of fuel as well as wear-and-tear on my taxi," Safiullah adds.

Key to Rebuilding

The rehabilitation and upgrading of Afghanistan's badly degraded national road system is a key element of the massive international effort to rebuild the country following more than 25 years of conflict.

An assessment undertaken in early 2002 revealed that following years of civil unrest, 54% of national roads, totaling 6,100 km in length, were in poor condition and 26% in fair condition, leaving only 20% in "good" condition, but far below international standards. The degraded status of the road network posed a major stumbling block to the overall reconstruction effort. The widespread presence of landmines and other unexploded ordnance, in addition to Afghanistan's harsh and mountainous terrain, has also provided major challenges.

Over the past 7 years, there has been a concerted effort to rebuild the country's road network, with focus on the 2,700 kilometers of the 'Ring Road', considered the backbone of the national highway system.

Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, Afghanistan's Minister of Finance, views the improved road network as essential to Afghanistan's further economic and social development: "Rehabilitation of the 'Ring Road' and connecting link roads to neighboring countries is significantly improving accessibility for a large proportion of the Afghan population". In addition, the minister notes that "improved road access will provide opportunities for better livelihoods, including through expanded regional trade."

As part of the international effort to reconstruct the national highway system, as of the end of 2007 ADB had approved some $475 million from the ADF to reconstruct some 1,300 kilometers of the "Ring Road." ADB also is administering an additional $100 million in grant financing for major road rehabilitation, with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction, and the Kuwait Fund.

With construction work still underway, it is expected that the overall 'Ring Road' will be fully rehabilitated by the end of 2010.

Real Benefits

The major investment in Afghanistan's road infrastructure already has provided real economic and social benefits. "The Ring Road network is not only a source of economic growth, but also serves as a bridge linking provinces to each other," says Afghanistan's Minister of Public Works Sohraf Ali Saffary.

Wahidullah Shahrani, the Deputy Minister of Finance, said that "rehabilitation of the Ring Road is helping unlock the growth potential of the Afghan economy." Citing ADB's "exemplary support" for the rehabilitation of the national highway system, Mr. Shaharani noted that "the upgrading of the Ring Road has provided better connectivity between the various communities and ethnic groups in the country, has contributed to state-building, and has strengthened the credibility of the government by providing enhanced access and services."

In addition to improved connectivity and market access, the upgraded road network is contributing to increased internal and external trade. The improved road system will also help promote increased private investment, leading to increased agricultural productivity, increased utilization of the country's natural resources, and - over time - even increased tourism receipts. Such developments also will increase employment opportunities, thus contributing to accelerated poverty reduction.

Tangible Evidence

Improved road transport is tangible evidence of Afghanistan's reconstruction. Freight traffic already has increased dramatically, and is expected to reach 23.7 million tons per kilometer by 2010 and 34.8 million tons per kilometer by 2015.

Complementary investments in regional cooperation, trade facilitation, and road rehabilitation are expected to multiply the value of official trade with neighboring countries from $4.7 billion in 2005 to at least $12 billion by 2016.

The improvement of Afghanistan's highway network has not been without difficulty. Contractors' bids for some of the road projects have exceeded approved funding levels, resulting in the need for supplementary financing. Recent deterioration in security in some parts of the country has greatly increased overall security costs, with insurgent attacks on contractor compounds and equipment delaying civil works.

The improved road infrastructure also will require sustainable operations and maintenance funding, estimated to be some $90 million per year. Akbar, a bus driver plying the route between Kabul and Kunduz, notes the importance of ongoing maintenance to prevent the newly improved roads from again falling into disrepair: "Some of the new roads already are in need of repair. The Government must maintain these roads to keep traffic moving and to ensure Afghanistan's further development."