In Tajikistan, a new bridge across the Surhob River is connecting once-isolated villages to the amenities of town, saving lives in medical emergencies, and providing a much-needed shot in the arm for small businesses.
By the numbers
of roads approaching bridge constructed
of rural roads
Source: Implementation Completion Memorandum (2010)
Rasht, Tajikistan - In Zarangak Village in northeast Tajikistan, Hakimjon Kululov, a family doctor, checks the lungs of a coughing baby boy with a stethoscope.
Kululov, 46, recalls horror stories of having to carry emergency patients to the district hospital on stretchers over an old, shaky suspension bridge made of wood and rope. The trip took the doctor and other helpers 2 to 3 hours on foot. That is all in the past now that his village and 19 other remote villages can cross the Surhob River to Rasht's hospitals, schools, and markets, via a new bridge made of reinforced concrete.
"If an emergency happens, it takes less than 15 minutes to drive a sick person to a district hospital in Rasht Center."
- Hakimjon Kululov, doctor
"I feel so much more optimistic," he says of village health care, thanks to the bridge. "If an emergency happens, it takes less than 15 minutes to drive a sick person to a district hospital in Rasht Center."
Bridging the divide
In 2007, through the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction, ADB approved a $2 million grant for the Sustainable Access for Isolated Rural Communities Project.
The project built the 227-meter bridge, and just over a kilometer (km) of road leading up to the bridge, while also improving over 14 km of rural roads connecting nearby communities to the bridge.
Residents say the bridge and the roads have made life much more convenient, particularly given that there were times in the past when the old suspension bridge couldn't be used at all.
"During high water, when the suspension bridge flooded and we couldn't use it, we had to cross the river on rafts made of inflated cow stomachs and planks of wood," says Abdulhakim Karimov, 63, head of the Hijborak Community Council. "The rafts were very dangerous, and after several people died, we banned the use of them."
Kirgiz Niyozov, 80, a resident of Zarangak Village, 19 kilometers east of Rasht Center, calls the bridge "a unique gift" that he and his fellow villagers had long dreamed of.
"We now have a very stable and safe bridge," he says, one that cars can easily drive across. "Our great grandchildren will remember and thank those who helped build the bridge."
A boon for small business
Thanks to the new bridge, over 47,000 rural villagers directly benefit from improved mobility, access to services, and communication. The project is also helping small businesses in remote, isolated villages. Business owners report increases in their incomes by as much as 45%, thanks to reductions in transport costs, easier access to markets, and increased passenger traffic.
The new bridge makes the delivery of agricultural products to market centers easier, and also reduces transport costs for local farmers.
"Now it's only 8 km to reach the main market, and the travel is easy."
- Davlathuja Kulolov, farmer
"In the past, I could not sell my apples and pears at all. No vendor came to our village to pick them up, and I was at a loss about how to bring the fruits to market myself," says 51-year-old farmer, Davlathuja Kulolov. "But now it's only 8 km to reach the main market, and the travel is easy."
The project has also improved access to education, particularly for students attending higher grades. Shomahmad Sharipov, 63, teaches secondary school in Zarangak Village. "Some of the schools in this area only have grades from 1 to 9, and children from those villages could not continue their education after grade 9," says Sharipov. "But now they can easily study in grades 10 and 11 in other villages or in the Rasht Center."
Given the importance of regular bridge maintenance, the project established village infrastructure maintenance associations and funds to care for the bridge and roads. The associations have been trained in technical and financial management, and provided with essential road maintenance and safety tools. Villagers donate labor or cash to contribute to seasonal bridge maintenance.
"A project does not have to be grand and costly to bring big benefits to people," says C.C. Yu, ADB's Country Director for Tajikistan. "The demand for such small but well targeted projects in Tajikistan is huge, and we will continue to work with the Japanese government and other donors to deliver them."
For Karimov and others like him the bridge has been an inspiration.
"We are now planning to construct another small bridge several kilometers downstream from here. We've already collected money for it, and hope to manage construction ourselves," he says.