Road building

At the President’s Co-ordinating Council (PCC) meeting on 11 June 2015 in Cape Town, President Jacob Zuma said that “…we are constructing and improving rail, roads, ports, broadband, roads, dams and power stations.” He also noted that this dovetails with the continental infrastructure programme.

African nations, including our own, are committed to improving infrastructure, such as railways, ports and roads, across the continent. The reasons are varied and tied to development goals but mostly, infrastructure is needed to transport materials for China-funded mega mining projects.

This is both an income-generating and cost-cutting move. It costs more to transport mining goods on the continent than it does in more developed regions, at least in part because of shoddy, dangerous roads and delays due to detours or road bottlenecks.

The large-scale drive to upgrade Africa’s network of highways and smaller, connecting roads is centred around developmental corridors. These are large geographical pathways that have the potential to boost national economies and feed growing populations.

The current state of African roads

Compared with the rest of the world, the continent’s road system is under-developed and badly maintained.

Statistics from the World Bank indicate that the world average for road density is 944 kilometres per 1000 square kilometres of land, and more than half are paved. In Africa, the figure drops to 204 kilometres of road per 1000 square kilometres, with only a quarter paved.

A road building boom, which is already in the process of changing things, has been steadily gaining momentum over the last 10 years. Since 2005, Africa’s road network has been increasing at a rate of about 7,500 kilometres a year.

Tanzania and Lesotho are two of the nations leading the way. Thanks to the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA), which was launched in 2010, many other nations are following suit.

Plan for rapid expansion of Africa’s road networks

A plan to expand Africa’s existing network of major roads by about 10,000 kilometres includes upgrading existing roads and building new ones, until the continent’s road network reaches 60,000 to 100,000 kilometres.

The plan, which is backed by local governments, international banks, private investors, funding agencies and more, will see nine major arteries criss-cross the continent. These will be connected to smaller cities with around 250,000 km of smaller roads, and another 70,000 km of roads will connect to rural regions.

The next big step is opening the Trans-Sahara Highway from Algiers to Lagos, which is almost complete. Then there’s the road network that will finally connect Cairo and Cape Town, scheduled to be opened in 2016.

The implications of expanding Africa’s roads

Of course, more roads will transform the continent as we know it. Greater geographical access helps with development. It improves access to education and services like medical care, and increases opportunities for trade.

The World Bank estimates that improvements in infrastructure can increase economic growth by 2 percentage points annually.

Here’s a look at the pros and cons of Africa’s current road-building boom.

The pros

Expansion to Africa’s roads could have the following positive consequences:

Reduction in poverty
More roads, and more development as a result, mean not only greater access to jobs, but more employment opportunities. Roads lead to other infrastructural improvements, like new schools, hospitals, shopping areas and so on, and more people are needed to service these.

Access to health
People in remote regions are better able to reach doctors, clinics, and medicines. Water and electricity are also easier to access.

Access to education
Research has shown that villages with greater road access score higher in tests designed to measure the effectiveness of education in Africa. With roads, children can get taxis to schools, rather than having to do manual labour or walk far distances to the closest schools. Roads also allow people to move through areas that were once cut off, potentially broadening outlooks.

Increased GDPs
Farmers closer to trading areas, like cities, have better access to markets for selling their produce, and to tools for helping increase productivity (such as fertiliser). It’s thought that in clearing hard-to-reach areas for vegetation, roads also allow farming to start happening in areas that weren’t farmed before.

Increased trade
With villages and towns connected to cities and other countries, trading routes are opened up and improved upon, allowing for greater trade overall.

The cons

It’s not all completely positive, however. Expansion of road networks across Africa could also have some significant negative consequences:

Financial risk
Governments eager to help build roads for mining firms may get themselves into debt by trying to help finance the road building through loans. The yields, through improved agriculture and so on, are also not guaranteed.

Research suggests the results may be far less promising than anticipated. A study led by tropical ecologist Bill Laurance at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, studied the potential environmental and agricultural impacts of 33 development corridors, focusing on Africa.

Of the corridors examined, only six were viewed as promising. Some of the forest areas that will be cleared, for instance, aren’t nearly as great for farming as savanna woodlands are, for example.

Environmental impact
Road building disrupts the ecological integrity of natural habitats, with a band of impact that extends far beyond the roads themselves.

Some of the areas that will be affected are currently protected. One of the proposed roads to the gold fields of Tanzania, for instance, would divide the Serengeti National Park, a site known for its animal migrations. In addition to fragmenting important habitats, building roads opens routes for poachers to enter, along with others who may strip the land of resources, such as wood.

Tim Caro, a conservation biologist at the University of California, commented on the James Cook study, saying: “I was surprised by the number of protected areas that are going to be affected by these corridors… It implies that the people who are designing these corridors are not really thinking about conservation of natural resources very much.”

Already, mining activities have disrupted the protected status of national parks – habitats for species like chimpanzees – in Zambia and the Republic of Guinea. And it’s not only the fauna that are affected. As studies on deforestation in South America have shown, road infrastructure through mountain regions can contribute to landslides and soil erosion, impacting the landscape and flora.

The PIDA, however, does seem committed to being environmentally sensitive. The African Development Bank, one of the groups behind PIDA, says planned projects will be assessed for their impact on the environment according to international standards.

For modern road building and other feats of engineering and construction, nothing beats a motor grader. At KH Plant, we specialise in reconditioning Caterpillar motor graders, restoring them to as-new condition. Contact us for more information or a quotation.

Similar Posts