Make Sure Bridges Continue to Stand

August 25, 2011

Loup Brefort

This article was published in the NIN weekly magazine on August 25, 2011

Author: Loup Brefort, Country Manager for Serbia, The World Bank




In January this year, the mayor of Loznica claimed that Drina and Jadar floods cost his community around 2.8 million Euros in damages. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention at the time. But then I recently visited a city in Southern Serbia in order to see the flood control structures built under a World Bank-financed project, at a cost of around a million Euros. The visit helped me understand what Loznica and probably many other municipalities in Serbia may need to avoid such costly damage.

Puzzled? Let me explain. With a group of my colleagues I visited this city because one of the activities under the project financed the repair, strengthening and elevation of the river-bank, and cleaning up the riverbed of a major river flowing through the city. This was done to prevent damages due to regular flooding. One could see that the initial construction work was very well done but, less than two years after its completion, the picture was not a pretty one: once again, the banks were overgrown by weeds, littered with garbage and the riverbed clogged with stones, dead wood, solid waste and other debris. It was clear to me that, next high water season, this would put the new structure at risk of serious damage.

Well, you can imagine how disappointed we were! I was standing there wondering why did the Government of Serbia invest a million Euros of a World Bank credit if the municipality wouldn’t bother to invest very little of its own money to take care of simple maintenance? Particularly puzzling at a time when unemployment in Serbia is so high and this kind of maintenance work could easily be done by contracting a few dozen people to do it, with sweat maybe but without need for costly heavy machinery?

By now you probably figured out that my topic of today is maintenance. And it is not only about waterways. It also applies to roads, bridges, water supply and power systems, parks or any other public infrastructure.  This aspect is too often neglected in Serbia. Sure enough, in most countries, “cutting the ribbon” of a brand new investment is more “sexy” for responsible authorities, but ignoring maintenance goes against a fundamental aspect of sustainable development.

The roads are another example of what I am talking about. Yes, it is of crucial importance for Serbia to build all the missing links on the Corridor X motorway and construct new roads connecting its cities that fall outside of the Corridor. But what’s the point if other roads are in such bad condition that traffic of cars and trucks slows to a crawl, accidents increase in number and severity and no investor in his right mind would think of locating its production facility more than a few dozens of kilometers away from a Corridor? Roads of Serbia may be doing its best with its limited resources but the maintenance backlog is huge. As a result, transport assets in Serbia are in a poorer condition than any of the neighboring countries, with the possible exceptions of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In the early 2000s, approximately 25% of the main and regional roads in Serbia were in good condition, 19% in fair condition and 56% in bad or very bad condition. The comparative figures for Croatia, according to a survey, were 32%, 46%, and 22% respectively. Funding for road maintenance, which was satisfactory until the early 1990s, decreased dramatically and remained at inadequate levels throughout the 1990s. Average annual maintenance expenditures on main and regional roads have been of the order of 0.3% of GNP over that period, whilst a comparable figure from countries at similar stages of development would be around 1% of GNP. Funding to the sector improved in 2002, but the actual level remains volatile, reflecting the dependency of the sector on the short term considerations and constraints imposed by the national budget.

Don’t get me wrong! Construction of a new road, or bridge, or power station, or levee, or dam, in addition to the maintenance of an existing one, may make economic sense as well. Indeed, since maintenance costs increase rapidly when infrastructure utilization gets closer and closer to maximum level it was originally designed for, then creating new complementary investment may be a “win-win” if the new project reduces utilization such that both projects operate below capacity rather than one or the other operating at or above capacity. In this case, the long-term savings of an additional, rather than a replacement, project could be substantial.

Nevertheless, it is no brainer to conclude that serious underfunding of maintenance makes additional investment in infrastructure ultimately meaningless. After a few years, how do these shiny new structures look like? Unfortunately, new investments attract everyone’s attention and money spent on maintenance, by contrast, is practically invisible. No one writes news stories praising leaders because bridges continue to stand. And yet, it is as important as building new ones.