A Triumph Over Long Odds: Building Rural Roads in South Sudan

February 9, 2016

  • The World Bank financed the construction of 424 km of better, smoother rural roads.
  • New roads promote growth for the rural communities scattered along the road and connect villagers to markets, schools and healthcare.
  • The goal is to improve lives along the road corridors by connecting people to the outside world.

The old roads had pools deep enough to stall a Land Rover. In the rainy season, long stretches were so thick with mud that trucks and people could not always slog through. Two-foot drop-offs from one side of the road to the other made driving dangerous, and the ruts were so deep that trucks would tip violently as they tried to climb through them.  “It was a dirt track first, and then the jungle took it over. It was so overgrown you could only maybe go about 8-10 kilometers an hour,” says Muhammad Zulfiqar Ahmed, who is the task team leader of the World Bank South Sudan Rural Roads Project.  South Sudan suffered through more than two decades of civil war, which ended in 2005. Now it is a young country, and its roads are in a parlous state, highly affected by the conflict and by neglect.

For the 91,000 people who live and work within five kilometers of the various segments of road, it was both a lifeline and a curse. It was the only way to get vegetables, cereals and other crops to market, and the only way to get sick and pregnant people to hospital. These roads offer the hope of connecting to the rest of South Sudan, to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but they were so hard to travel that hope was often dashed.  Women would die in labor because they could not reach the hospital in time.  Farmers could not think beyond subsistence living because they had no way to get their crops to market. The jostling that sick and hurt people faced on their way to doctors would make their sufferings worse, some died on the way.

In order to help promote growth for the rural communities scattered along the road, and to connect villagers to markets, schools and healthcare, the World Bank financed the construction of 424 km of better, smoother rural roads.  The roads are in segments in the rural, agriculture-rich south of the country. So far, workers have finished 361 km, or nearly 85 percent of the total job. The goal is to improve lives along the road corridors by connecting people to the outside world.

“These roads that we’re working on, most of them haven’t been maintained for over 20 years,” says Emmanuel Taban, a highway engineer for the World Bank on South Sudan. “One thing that we’ve noticed when we travel on these roads, every community that you meet is so happy about the roads. One could see that the farmers are trying to do better because they have access to markets.  I remember when I first went on these roads in 2011, we could barely go 20 km!”

Gunfire and Landmines

But that task is not easy. Sporadic fighting and the threat of buried landmines along the road often stopped work. Armed conflict, political turmoil and a barely functioning government made getting materials and people to the site difficult and expensive. The connecting roads are in such bad shape it is hard for crews to move in gravel, graders, and culvert pipes.  Engineers had to plan bridges for two river crossings, and come up with innovative ways to manage swamps and flooded streams. Shortages of diesel made work impossible at times. Heavy rainfall sometimes shut the work down entirely.

But it is mostly finished. Not only that, the construction crews are completing the project on time and on budget.  Zulfiqar says, “it’s very impressive that the people on the ground were able to deliver this project despite all the very serious challenges.” The work generated 200,000 days of employment in the region, for jobs ranging from driving heavy equipment to cook to supervisor to unskilled laborers.

And the new roads have already had an impact. Travel time from Magwi to Lobone dropped from eight hours to one and a half hour. Getting from Amdai to Tali used to take ten hours; that’s also now one and a half hour. Yei to New Lasu went from a five-hour ordeal to one hour on smooth road.  The cost of travel, both in time and money, fell sharply. “Roads in rural areas can be the difference between surviving and thriving. In South Sudan, the new roads are bringing a new life to these communities,” says Supee Teravaninthorn, the Practice Manager for Africa in the World Bank’s Transport and ICT Global Practice.

The renovated roads, like the old ones, are gravel.  But unlike the old ones, the new roads have proper drainage. Culverts now divert water away from the road, instead of onto it. Engineers followed standard design practice, and built the roads to be more durable given the same weather condition. They are property graded and sited.

Combining Road Work and Agriculture

The difficult working conditions, though, brought innovation. Because the situation in South Sudan was sometimes dangerous, other development programs like agriculture, health and water were delayed. So, under the auspices of the project, and in consultation with local farmers, the road crews built agriculture into their network. Alongside the rehabilitated road segments, construction crews built 39 storage sheds and small markets. “This has been transformative. This supports communities along the roads to form cooperatives, and then these cooperatives advise us to build small storage facilities and mini-markets and this is unusual,” explains Zulfiqar. “These are small interventions but they make a huge difference.” 

Emmanuel Taban agrees.  “If we could work together with the agriculture sector and build roads and do agriculture together, it would make our road projects even more transformative and sustainable.” In the bad days of rough driving, farmers simply could not get their produce to market to take advantage of high prices. Now, with the storage sheds, they can store their crops until prices rise and it makes sense to sell. The mini-markets are very useful providing a platform for dealers from Juba and other big cities to come to the farmers to bid for their crops.  This has been one of the primary impacts of the new roads with proper integration with agriculture activities. 

With proper maintenance, these low-volume roads will serve to keep communities connected. These rural roads connect into trunk roads, which, in South Sudan, are also mostly gravel and are in very bad shape, especially during the rainy season. South Sudan has not yet moved toward a road investment strategy that results in a strong network of trunk, secondary and local access roads. This is mostly because of the magnitude of the challenge—South Sudan did not have a single paved road until shortly after its independence in 2011. Now, South Sudan has a road network over 17,000 km, but only 200 km of paved road.

The next dream of paved roads for South Sudan is the 350 km of asphalt road from Juba, the capital, to Nadapal at the Kenya border.  However, given the available resources the renovated gravel roads are a huge step forward. The renovated segments will be very different from the old roads, smooth and straight. In places, the new roads will have signs, like one warning fast-moving drivers of children who might be crossing the road. Not only is the sign new, the fast-moving drivers are new, too.