Sri Lanka: Roads to Development

March 16, 2009

Road to Puttalam

March 16, 2009 - For years, Champika Dassananyake, a farmer in Puttalam District in Sri Lanka, struggled to transport her paddy to the nearest town, some 20 kilometers away. Largely unpaved, narrow, and full of potholes, the main road she used was in poor condition.

“It was difficult for two vehicles to travel on this road. There were lots of potholes and when it rained the drains flooded. We couldn’t even harvest our paddy and carry it along this road,” she said.

But Dassananyake, and other local farmers, are now benefitting from a new road, which is part of the World Bank’s US$198 million Road Sector Assistance project. “With the new road, life has become easier,” she said.

“Inadequate road infrastructure is a critical constraint for sustainable and inclusive growth in Sri Lanka," said Naoko Ishii, World Bank Country Director for Sri Lanka. "National roads carry over 70 percent of the traffic and are vital for the movement of people and goods. Roads play an important role in integrating the country, facilitating economic growth, and ultimately, reducing poverty.”

Economic and Social Impact

Many studies point to the important economic and social impact of roads which link rural communities to schools, health services, and markets. A World Bank study in Sri Lanka found that each additional minute to a main road raises unemployment by three percent.

Just a few years ago, Sri Lanka’s national road network was in poor condition. Uncontrolled roadside development, years of neglect, and poor road maintenance resulted in low travel speeds and poor levels of service. This discouraged long distance traffic and stalled the spread of economic activities and development outside the Colombo Metropolitan area.

However, much has improved in a short period of time. In less than three years, the Road Sector Assistance project has improved and completed 420 km of national roads spread across Southern, Central, Sabaragamuwa, North Central, Uva, Eastern, Western and North Western Provinces. The project is on track to meet the goal of reducing highways in poor condition from 52 percent in 2005 to 35 percent by 2011.

“The approach has been to provide a quick overlay of the selected priority roads without any acquisition of land with substantial improvements to drainage, and with a focus towards continuous maintenance of the national road network,” said Amali Rajapaksa, World Bank Senior Infrastructure Specialist and Project Team Leader. “This project has taken into account measures to safeguard social and environmental issues that may trigger if not managed well. And for the first time in a road project in Sri Lanka, HIV and AIDS awareness training has been conducted.”

Economy of Tomorrow

Better roads are also having a significant impact on local economies. W.B. Navaratne Mudiyanse, President of the Trade Association in Nickaweratiya and the owner of an electronics store, says the new, wider road in front of his shop, has perked up business.

“This used to be a very remote area and we had to travel to Kurunegala to get what we wanted,” he said. “But now we have almost anything that a shop in Colombo would have.”

Better roads also mean easier access to health care, and children can go to better schools.

“Many people couldn’t send their children to big schools in Kurunegala so they had to opt for local schools,” said H. G. S. Seneviratne, who is a Resident Engineer on the project team in Padeniya-Puttalam. “But the development of the road means they can now travel to the city and enroll in better schools. Before, it was only people with money who could put their children in boarding schools in bigger cities.”

Seneviratne says the project is not just about the physical infrastructure. Her team joined forces with the contractor and the local community to develop a program that educates road users about road safety. The program also raises awareness about HIV and AIDS and has started a tree planting initiative to compensate for the trees that are cut down to build the road. Recognizing the importance of roads development for economic growth and poverty reduction, the World Bank plans to invest nearly US$ 415 million to improve provincial and national roads over the next four years.

Naoko Ishii said providing connectivity to integrate rural and urban areas, lagging regions and leading regions is critical to any country at any time but especially so in Sri Lanka at this point where addressing disparities in the economy is one of the development priorities. "It is imperative that we invest in roads today to grow the economy of tomorrow.”