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Pillars, drivers tremble on Helmand’s troubled bridge

Khalil Rahman Omaid
Time is running out for the Helmand capital's heavily overloaded bridge.
12.12.2011  |  Lashkar Gah
The bridge in Lashkar Gah seems sturdy enough - until your vehicle starts tremling beneath you. (Photos: Omaid) Your heart is in your mouth these days as you travel across the bridge at Lashkar Gah. So great has the overloading become on the 182-metre-long structure built 55 years ago by US engineers, that cars as well as trucks now cause alarming reverberations as they traverse the Helmand River. And no one has yet set a date for its major repair or replacement, despite growing calls for action in the community. “This bridge has been a main route for many years and no one could feel the vibrations before,” said driver Eid Mohammad from Helmand’s Nawa district. “But now when a car passes the bridge all the passengers can feel it tremble, which creates fear.”  As well as with Nawa, the two-lane bridge connects the provincial capital with the heavily fought-over Nad Ali, Marja and Garmsir districts, where stability was won at a bloody cost in the past two years. If the bridge becomes unserviceable, locals in these areas say the decline will be rapid, that choked supplies of goods and services will ruin the economy, and health care will also suffer. Overloaded legacy The bridge and much of the other local infrastructure was built in the 1950s by American engineers contracted to develope Helmand by the Afghan government. This now seemingly golden era was superceded by the conflicts of the past three decades, and in many cases trophies of progress like the bridge have been left to crumble. “The bridge has lasted longer than it should, because it was designed for 25 tons of burden, while trucks pass the bridge with 50 tons of load,” said Abdul Qader Nasrat, head of public works in Helmand Province. “The pedestrian walkway is also falling apart in some sections and children and elderly people could fall.” Nasrat's department has referred the concerns upwards to the government in Kabul, as well as foreign authorities, but as yet no long-term solution has been forthcoming, he said. Nor have appeals to drivers to lighten their loads helped, said the head of Helmand’s traffic department, Abdullrahman Azizi, adding that around 2,000 cars and trucks use the bridge every day. Distant memories of a local landmark  Sayed Imam Shah Gharibyar is an elder of Lashkar Gah who worked on the construction of the bridge as a young man, and remembers how it changed Helmand.  Around 2,000 cars and heavily-loaded trucks use the bridge every day, often exerting twice the allowed 25-ton burden. “People were in trouble before this bridge was built because they couldn’t communicate easily. This bridge changed the lives of the inhabitants and villagers," Gharibyar said, agreeing that the structure was rapidly deteriorating. “I myself worked on the bridge, large pillars were used in its construction, and while it always vibrated when vehicles passed, the shaking has recently got worse.” But crossing the bridge was always an adventure, even when it was new, recalled Rebecca Ansary, who was born into an Afghan-American family and lived in Lashkar Gah in the late 1950s as the daughter of a local administrator. “My memory of the bridge was that it was very narrow. My strongest memory was the fact that there was a fairly high bump between the road and the bridge. Everyone in the car always held their breath as we approached the bridge, hoping that when we went over the bump, the wheels of the car would land on the bridge. All conversation stopped until we were actually on the bridge.” Piecemeal fix is planned The office of Helmand Governor Ghulab Mangal says there are plans for a new bridge but no one has set a date for construction or provided the funds. In the meantime, the governor's chief of staff, Muhammad Lal Ahmadi, said a temporary solution has been agreed with the Provincial Reconstruction Team. “The PRT will add a pillar to the bridge,” said Ahmadi, adding that “for the time being it’s enough.” Perhaps provincial administrators have stronger nerves than other bridge users, or avoid crossing it altogether. Ahmadi played down the alarm expressed by local drivers. Although acknowledging that the structure is overloaded, “the vibration rate of the bridge isn’t that frightening,” he said.