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Wedge through the wilds

Khushqadam Usmani
Completed in 2012, the USAID-funded highway connecting Keshim and Faizabad has brought new opportunities to Badakhshan Province: Trade has blossomed, health and security have improved and commuting times have been…
11.02.2013  |  Faizabad
New market forces: Faizabad grocer Sher Mohammed is happy to have a daily supply of fresh produce. (Photos: Usmani)
New market forces: Faizabad grocer Sher Mohammed is happy to have a daily supply of fresh produce. (Photos: Usmani)

Khoda Bakhsh will never forget the day a sick boy died in his car on the way to hospital.  An elderly man had paid the driver to take his ill son from Faizabad to Kabul for urgent treatment. When they got to the Qara Kamar area of Argo District, en route, an overturned Kamaz truck blocked the road. They waited two days for the road to be opened, but before the truck could be moved, the elderly man’s son died in the car.

The 48-year-old Bakhsh has many similar memories. He has been driving Toyota trucks on the Keshim to Faizabad route for years - but he still can't quite believe his eyes when he drives the road these days.

The ribbon was cut on the 128-million dollar USAID-funded link between the provincial capital Faizabad with Keshim District in June 2012. Since then, first signs suggest a bizarre mix of instant economic gains and undesirable social repercussions.

More trade, improved security and an influx of goods have been gladly absorbed by threadbare local markets. But the smooth new camber, built with 260,000 tons of asphalt, encourages speeding and has resulted in a sharp increase in accidents on the road.

Trade rising - and accidents

Long awaited, the 103-kilometre long, 7-metre wide asphalt artery took only three years to build. The previous roadway had acquired a bad reputation:  Patients like Khoda Bakhsh's young passenger frequently died on the way to hospital because of landslides,broken sections of road and  traffic blockages, according to Najib Andisha, chairman of Badakhshan’s Public Health Department. 

The Keshim-Faizabad Highway is 103 kilometres long, cost 128 million US dollars to build over three years, and used 260,000 tons of asphalt.

The asphalt highway slashed the journey time between Keshim and Faizabad from 7.5 hours to 90 minutes. The faster commutes mean fares have also halved from the old ened-to-end rate of ten dollars.

A key improvement is that all types of vehicles, not just trucks, can now travel the mountainous stretch between the two formerly isolated towns. Long-distance buses now depart on a daily basis between Faizabad and Kabul, with fares offered at an affordable 700 afghanis (12 dollars).

But the road has proved a two-edged sword for local authorities. While the government says it has raised 17.6 million afghanis (345,000 dollars) since November 2012, the number of fatal collisions and incidents has doubled since it  opened. Of nearly 100 accidents since June 2012, 33 resulted in deaths.

“Traffic accidents happen everywhere, even in the most developed countries of the world,” said Muhammad Ibrahim Mahdee, director of Badakhshan's Traffic Department. But he confirmed an increase in accidents due to speeding and unfamiliarity with driving on asphalt roads.

Faizabad gets competitive

Trader from Kunduz in BadakhshanDrawing trade to Faizabad: Mohammed Ismail now commutes daily from Kunduz to Faizabad to do business at the market.

Still, the road is already helping to make Faizabad a regional hub in its own right, enticing trade from neighbouring northern regions.

“I bring fruits and vegetables from Kunduz Province to Faizabad every day and return to my own province every evening," says Mohammad Ismail, a trader from Kunduz.

Traditionally cut off by the surrounding mountains, Faizabad’s markets are now humming, say local residents. “Before  the Keshim-Faizabad Highway was asphalted, there were not as many fruits in Faizabad markets. But now you can find fruits at good prices in any of the four seasons of the year,” says Faizabad resident and vegetable trader Sher Mohammad.

The number of lootings and hijackings on the road has also fallen, say security officials. This is mainly because the police can now reach the scene of a crime not only on the same day, but within hours. Forty officers currently secure the highway. 

Fazel Ahmad Aamaj, executive manager of the local Public Affairs Department, points to the success the road has had in stabilizing supply and demand in a traditionally unstable area of food supply. “Prices used to soar if trucks carrying goods did not make it to Faizabad,” says Aamaj. “Now, if trucks do not bring goods to Faizabad for two weeks, prices do not change since there are a lot of goods in the market.”

Road rage: the director of Public Works points to a crack in the road on the new Keshm-Faizabad Highway.The director of Public Works points to a crack that already appeared in the road. No adequate maintenance funds were included in the project.

Aamaj says Badakhshan’s geography makes the road crucial: "The road used to be rigid and mountainous and people had a very hard time commuting through it. The asphalted highway has eased the everyday life of people and it plays a critical role in trade, commerce, agriculture and health,” says the official.

Khoda Bakhsh says he is happy he and his colleagues have faster commute times now but fears the road will be destroyed if it is not properly looked after. The driver says parts of the road have already been destroyed by floods and falling rocks, and accuses the government of neglecting repairs.

“We informed the Department of Public Affairs of the situation and shared our concern over the destruction of Keshm-Faizabad Highway due to floods and falling rocks, but the Department of Public Affairs has done nothing about it so far,” says Ustad Saifuddin Saez, chairman of the provincial Civil Society Association. Saez adds that the increased volume of heavy vehicles is taking its toll on the road's condition.

Rocky path ahead?

Meanwhile, the Public Affairs Department cites chronic understaffing for the slow response. “What can we do with three people and 1,500 kilometers of road [across Badakhshan]?” asks Muhammad Rafeeq Shirzai, head of the provincial Department of Public Affairs.

Mountain jam: vehicles are left stranded after a section of the newly opened Keshm-Faizabad Highway flooded in 2012. Mountain jam: Vehicles are left stranded after a section of the newly opened highway flooded in 2012.

After some intervention by the provincial governor's office, there is now a 40-man team tasked with keeping the highway clean and clear. But according to Fazel Ahmad Aamaj, a senior decision maker in the department, the road's long-term maintenance somehow slipped the attention of the planners: “We have no money allocated for the maintenance of this road in our development budget. We have some money in our normal budget, but we can't use it for development purposes," he said.  

The many logistical maintenance challenges were reflected by a USAID statement released after the road's inauguration, saying that it has nine bridges, more than 600 culverts, and is used by 1,600 vehicles every day.

Many hopes also riding on the road 

If the road were to fall into serious disrepair, the resultant economic downturn would soon eat away at the recent rapid progress in different areas of public life.

He says, “I am my father’s eldest son. My father already passed away and I have to pay for the living expenses of my mother, two brothers and three sisters. Since the road was asphalted, I have been able to go to school and make enough money to pay for my family at the same time.

“I am my father’s eldest son, my father already passed away and I have to support my mother, two brothers and three sisters," says Raamesh, a tenth grader who after school works in a shop selling fruit, nuts and raisins. "Since the road was asphalted, I have been able to go to school and make enough money to pay for my family at the same time."

This could all grind to a halt without the opportunities the road brings. Equally at stake are the career hopes of young women like Sayeeda. The first-year higher education student travels 23 kilometres from her village to her college every day, and is hugely grateful for the chance.

“If this road were not asphalted, I think we would never be able to get a higher education,” says Sayeeda. “Before the road was asphalted, girls who went to colleges had to live in dormitories and this is not something all families are okay with.”

As Aamaj says, the easy part was building the road. The hard part, protecting it against the battering of the seasons and ensuring funding needed to keep it alive, is still to come.