A 100-km stretch of road is saving and improving lives and enhancing business opportunities in the north of Afghanistan, but it is just one small part of the 2,700-km ring road that is helping reconnect the country with Central Asia and the Middle East.
Bamyan, Afghanistan - A silver Toyota van stops outside a clinic in Bamyan, seat of the northern Afghan province of the same name, and 45-year-old Negar steps out of the vehicle with her heavily pregnant daughter-in-law. It has taken them just 20 minutes to get here on the newly asphalted road; in the past it took 3 hours or longer.
Negar is grateful for the new road, having heard horror stories of the trip to the hospital.
"Two years ago, the pregnant daughter of one of our neighbor's in-laws died along with her child on the way to this clinic," she says.
That death was just one of many. In the past, when the road was unsurfaced, potholed, and even cratered in some sections, dozens of pregnant women died on the long and jarring journey to the clinic.
Since 2003, ADB has provided close to $800 million in concessionary Asian Development Fund (ADF) financing for the 2,700-km Afghanistan Ring Road. The road circles the country, connecting Afghanistan's major regional centers (Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Maymaneh, and Sheberghan) with Kabul, and with neighboring countries.
However, ADB recognized that Afghanis living in the interior of the ring road, often poor and living in remote and mountainous provinces, were disconnected from the benefits brought by the regional highway.
The soon to be completed, 100-kilometer (km) road between Yakawlang District, in the northwest of Bamyan province, and the provincial seat, runs from the north of the country to the south, connecting people in the heart of Afghanistan to this major thoroughfare.
The North-South Corridor road, which made childbirth safe for Negar's daughter-in-law, was constructed with the support of a $78.2 million loan from ADB's concessionary ADF, a $40 million grant from the ADF, and a $20 million grant from the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction, financed by the Government of Japan. The funding covers the entirety of the road, which connects Bamyan with the Ring Road in the Sholgara District, in Afghanistan's northernmost province of Balkh, on the border of Uzbekistan.
Bamyan Governor Habiba Sarabi says that the portion of the road connecting Bamyan to Yakawlang has benefitted more than 80,000 residents of Bamyan Province.
The new road is even beginning to draw tourists to Bamyan's once threatened historical treasures, the governor says.
"After asphalting the Bamyan-Yakawlang Road, the number of local and international tourists visiting Band Amir, an Afghan national park, has grown by multiples, also providing jobs for thousands of Bamyan people in the tourism sector," Sarabi says.
"We look at how people's lives have been transformed and we can call it a historic change." - Habiba Sarabi, Bamyan Governor
"Four years ago, when work on this project started, the people and officials of Bamyan called it a 'historic day'. Now the project has been completed and we look at how people's lives have been transformed and we can call it a 'historic change'."
Two other portions of the road will connect Yakawlang to Dari-a-Suf, and Dari-a-Suf to Mazar-e-Sharif, which lies along the northern portion of the Ring Road.
The new road facilitates trade and commerce. It was built to international standards to accommodate the hauling of commercial goods into the country, and of minerals out of it. Bamyan and Dara-i-Suf are rich in coal reserves and iron ore deposits.
"It is built according to international standards and is good for beyond 80 metric tons weight," says Engineer Jaan Aqa, 56, in charge of the Bamyan-Yakawlang road.
Improved roads were also meant to shift farmers from subsistence agriculture to market-based production, since farmers could grow fruits and vegetables and more quickly transport them to markets.
"In the past, the bad road caused delays in transportation and sometimes my products would rot on the way to town," says 56-year-old Murad Ali, a farmer in Qara Natoo Village, 65 km from Bamyan. "Transport costs were also high," he adds.
Ease of transportation has been a boon to farmers throughout the region, with many claiming they have seen reductions in spoilage of agricultural goods during transportation.
"Prior to the asphalting of this road, when we transported a truckload of fruits or other agricultural crops, we would lose more than half of it to the heat and the rough road," says Abdurrahim, 51, a farmer in Dara-i-Suf District in the Samangan Province. "However, now we drive this road in a considerably shorter time with a higher degree of convenience."
"Before the Sholgara-Mazar-e-Sharif road was asphalted, I had to get my truck repaired after every trip I made." - Mohammad Sharif, 31, truck driver
Meanwhile, Mohammad Sharif, 31, a truck driver and resident of the Sholgara district in the Balkh Province, says he can now do three round trips to Mazar-e-Sharif every week, while in the past he could only do one a week - and often with difficulty due to the bad road conditions.
"Before the Sholgara-Mazar-e-Sharif road was asphalted, I had to get my truck repaired after every trip I made."