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Dream road vs. bad track record

Waheed Orya
A new road linking Balkh Province's Charkent District to the remote village of Qalaghaj is under construction and should be completed within a year with funding from the German government. But critics say shoddy…
24.05.2013  |  Charkent
For too long shephers and farmers in Charkent District have  been unable to  get their produce to market fast enough. Now a new road  is coming.  (Photos: Waheed Orya)
For too long shephers and farmers in Charkent District have been unable to get their produce to market fast enough. Now a new road is coming. (Photos: Waheed Orya)

Mountains shadow green hills where shepherds graze thousands of sheep. Huge canyons full of lush apple trees dot the landscape, while 20 shops with awning poles painted in the Aghan national colours of black, red and green complete the picture in the village of Qalaghaj. But this scene is not about the picturesque, but the desperate need for road connection to the Charkent District capital, located 50 kilometres south of Mazar-e Sharif.

All eyes are on the construction of a 37-kilometre road which, prior to its due completion date in early 2014, already bears the hopes of a population that feels it missed out on development since 2002. But with examples abounding of badly implemented and corrupt projects elsewhere, stakeholders and residents have their reservations.

“I urge officials to help build this road properly - it should not get damaged after only a year, just like other roads,” said a 70-year-old village elder who asked not to be named as he told of his concerns and described harsh local conditions.

“Our district is mountainous. Vehicles cannot move in the spring because it is too muddy and cannot move in the winter because it snows heavily,” he said.

Life-saving artery

The road will cost 1.5 million dollars and will be paid for by Germany, Abdul Baset Aini, head of the Balkh Provincial Department of the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD), told Afghanistan Today. 

Officials cut the ribbon to inaugurate works on the 37-kilometre stretch of road that will connect district capital Charkent with the village of Qala GhaajOfficials cut the ribbon to inaugurate works on the 37-kilometre stretch of road that will connect district capital Charkent with the village of Qalaghaj in Balkh Province.

“This project, which includes building a road with bridges and walls, will be completed in a period of one year,” he said following the start of work this spring.

The road upgrade is expected to slash travelling time from Qalaghaj to Charkent to some 90 minutes compared with the 7-24 hours it takes on the existing track. The new thoroughfare is expected to have an immediate positive impact on health, education and the local economy. 

“We cannot take sick people to the hospital at the right time," the elder added.“There will be fewer deaths, particularly of women and children. People will also be able to take their products to Mazar-e-Sharif and sell them at a reasonable price, whereas at the moment they cannot do this because of the transportation costs.”

Qalaghaj's main income comes from agricultural production: yogurt, milk, butter, cream, wheat, melon and sesame. But limited access to the market in Mazar-e Sharif and fluctuating prices have stopped local farmers from being competitive, while bumping up prices for basics. For example, a kilo of sugar cost 25 per cent more in Qalaghaj than in Mazar-e Sharif.

No pleasing everyone

But here as across the country, seeds of potential conflict are sown in each new development project. Aini of the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development says his office faces budgetary constraints and complaints from other communities which miss out because the project only benefits a few villages.

QalaghajThe village of Qalaghaj is currently only connected to the outside world through mountain paths.

“People have a lot of demands," Aini said. "They asked for 110 kilometres of road. If we build this much it will cost us 4.5 million dollars. Unfortunately, no government would pay that amount to a single district, and it is rare, even impossible to build 110 kilometres of road in one district.”

The target road had to be shortened because of the mounting cost of building it through the area's rugged landscape. "We have to fill holes and caves, cut through mountains and build walls and bridges,” added the official.

Others involved in the new construction project say they are acutely aware of past disappointments and failures. 

“Last year, a road connecting Mazar-e-Sharif to Tangi Shadyan was built, including some bridges, but these were not built properly,” acknowledges Charkent District Governor Abdul Wahed. Other defective work by contractors also hampered construction of the Charkent to Mazar road, he said.

Nonetheless, the benefits still outweigh the obstacles, he stressed. “Despite all the problems, [recent road construction] has significantly eased commuting,” said Wahed. He also noted great strides in health and education that even flawed projects brought in the region he administers, and its population of some 60,000 people. .

“There will be fewer deaths, particularly of women and children." Qalaghaj resident.

"It is very hard for pregnant women to travel all the way to the district capital, and this results in three maternal deaths a year on average," said District Governor Wahed, painting a bleak picture of the local education sector. The new road will raise standards by providing access to schools in Charkent, added Wahed.

"In terms of education, we do not have professional teachers. There are no chairs and desks in many schools. We do not have proper facilities for our schools. Some of them are in rental houses. Some are just tents,” Wahed said.

Besides boosting infrastructure and services, the road is expected to bring a handsome payoff in security.

“In some areas, individuals have armed guards and our police force is not able to go to those villages with full confidence,” said Charkent District Police Chief Sayeed Anwar Shah.

Close scrutiny

Step-by-step: the new road will facilitate faster commutes. Many local residents are still forced to travel on unpassable stretches of road by donkey.

Wahed's bright account was however tempered by some harsh appraisal in the offices of Balkh's powerful Provincial Council. Earlier examples of poor road construction already sound the alarm, the body's chairman, Dr. Muhammad Afzal Hadid, told Afghanistan Today

“As far as I know, the road from Mazar-e-Sharif to Charkent District is of very low quality, just like other roads built in Afghanistan," he said, referring to the preceeding project. 

"These roads are like building clay on water, hoping it works like a bridge. A huge amount of money is spent on building this road, but since there was a lot of corruption, it lacks quality. The result is that Afghans were badly betrayed,” Hadid said, with a note of warning to those managing the new 37-kilometre project.

“I tell the head of the Provincial Department of Rural Development and others who are implementing this project to do their work with honesty and integrity to avoid getting in trouble later. Now is the time to prove your integrity and honesty,”