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FEATURE STORY

Ending centuries of isolation in rural Afghanistan

December 16, 2010

RURAL AFGHANISTAN

Kabul, December 16, 2010 - Seventy eight year old Mir Adil Shah of Khaja Mosafer Village in Paghman district recalls the endless problems the villagers faced without a road not long ago.

Although our village is not far from Kabul,” says the village elder. “We couldn’t afford to take our vegetables and fruit to market in the city where we could get a good price, because transportation costs were so high. We couldn’t take our old and sick to clinics in time for treatment either, because it took so long to reach there. But, now that this road has been rehabilitated,” he said, pointing a gnarled finger to the neatly asphalted ribbon of road beneath his feet, “most of our problems have been solved.”

Shah’s village is one of the 8,000 hamlets that have benefitted from the World Bank-supported National Rural Access Project (NRAP) - one of the Afghan government’s four national priority programs. Since 2002, with support from the international community, NRAP has aimed to rehabilitate an estimated 100,000 kilometers of secondary (or district) roads and tertiary (or village) roads in all 34 provinces of the country.

So far, some one tenth of this network - or over 10,000 kilometers of these roads - has been rehabilitated, reducing travel times and increasing rural Afghans’ access to vital services.

CONNECTIVITY IS CRUCIAL FOR AFGHAN VILLAGES

Rural roads are critical for improving the lives of the Afghan people, the vast majority of whom live in near isolation in rugged mountain villages that cling to steep hillsides or nestle in remote valleys in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world.

For centuries, narrow paths and dusty mule tracks have been their only means of contact with the outside world. Often, these makeshift tracks can only be traversed on foot or donkey-back, making for slow travel, engulfing travelers in swirls of dust during the hot summer months, or becoming impassable under sheets of snow during the long harsh winter.

Three decades of conflict and upheaval have cost Afghanistan dearly, dealing a further blow to an already impoverished people, destroying whatever little infrastructure existed, and leaving many families worse off than before.

Without all-weather roads that allow for motorized transport, it is arduous for children to get to school or for families to reach medical help in time. Villagers are unable to transport their world-renowned produce of grapes, almonds, and pomegranates to markets where they can earn a fair income, or develop new sources of earning. And, the lack of licit livelihoods is one of the major causes of the proliferation of poppy cultivation on lands where wheat and other staples once grew.

NATIONAL PRIORITY

Not surprisingly, rehabilitating the existing road network is a high priority for the Afghan government, and NRAP continues to be scaled up by the World Bank and its development partners. Today, the World Bank approved an additional grant of $40 million for the program, bringing its total support to NRAP to $211 million since 2003.The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) has also recently approved a $50 million grant to co-finance the program.

Since its inception, in addition to upgrading roads, the project has rehabilitated 15,000 hectares of land by improving irrigation and drainage, while providing employment to impoverished rural men and creating around 700,000 temporary jobs over a month-long period. In its early years, the project also used the proceeds of a grant from the Japan Social Development Fund (JSDF) to facilitate the reintegration of ex-combatants into society by training the higher-ranking cadres of demobilized men in the supervision of road construction activities where they could to put their leadership skills to good use.

IMPROVED LIVES

Where road works have been completed, the benefits are evident. Dr Naqibullah, 49, a resident of Paghman district near Kabul, speaks about the change the new road has brought. “Travel costs have halved,” he says, “It now costs just 100 Afghanis to travel to Kabul, half of what it cost earlier, enabling us to commute more easily to Kabul and arrive at work on time.”

There have also been health and environmental benefits. Mohammad Zafar of Khaja Mosafer village recalls how clouds of dust would envelop his tiny hamlet every time someone passed by on the road. “We would cough constantly,” he says. “But now, we can breathe easily.”

For Diljan, 35, a housewife whose family has to survive on her husband’s meager earnings, the construction of the road has provided much-needed income. “The program has provided work for our men,” she says, expressing her appreciation of the engineers who worked to build the road in all kinds of difficult weather.

EXTRAORDINARY CHALLENGES

Yet, working in Afghanistan has not been easy. Security remains a challenge in many areas. “Contractors and government functionaries have been taken hostage on several occasions; some have even lost their lives. And, equipment has been burnt,” says Nicholas Krafft, the World Bank’s Country Director in Afghanistan. “If an area is deemed insecure, contractors won't bid.”

One way to deal with this is to involve local communities,” he adds. “Once communities give their word to protect project staff and equipment, it becomes a matter of honor to keep them safe.” On the other hand, in areas where firms simply cannot work, the project contracts communities themselves to undertake simple road improvements.

Still much remains to be done and huge new investments are needed to ensure that the remaining 70 percent of the population that still lacks year-round access to basic social and administrative services can also see improvements in the quality of their lives.


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