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close this bookCERES No. 140 (FAO Ceres, 1993, 50 p.)
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Keeping Up Can't Be Put Off

Road maintenance is one variable that can't he ignored in any transport formula

By A. Airey and G.A. Taylor

Anyone who'd admit to being a highway engineer at a social function in a Third World country should be ready for an onslaught of tall tales, horror stories and complaints about the state of the roads. Everybody has an opinion on what's wrong, and how to put things right along their particular stretch of pavement.

Yet, if all these tales are put together, the scale of the problem becomes enormous: a 1987 World Bank report estimated US$90 billion would be needed to repair the deteriorated highway networks in 85 countries that have received World Bank loans for roads.

How could this happen?

Good roads should sustain growth in rural areas which, in turn, should generate the revenue needed to maintain and improve road networks. In practice, unfortunately, this hoped-for scenario is rare.

Of course, building new roads is a popular policy in many developing countries. Rapidly expanding road networks, are, after all, a highly visible manifestation of development, of direct immediate benefit to political constituents. They attract donor support in the form of grants and loans' while providing engineers a chance to set consistent, sound design standards for roads that previously didn't exist. But maintenance tends to be ignored in the process, its low profile and poor professional image too often matched by restricted government funding. When budgets are squeezed, maintenance is an easy target for savings, made more inviting by the fact that road deterioration may not be immediately visible.

An inexorable process

Road maintenance however isn't really avoidable-only postponable. Sooner or later, the work will have to be done. at an even higher cost than the original, illusory “saving.'' each dry-season surface crack-overlooked to save money eventually becomes a pothole, and when the rains come it deepens and expands. The process is inexorable, whether we try to ignore it or not: it is estimated that for every kilometre of new road built in sub-Saharan Africa, three kilometres now fall into a state of total disrepair.

If greater financial resources were made available, would the problem be solved'? Sadly, in many developing nations the answer is likely no.

Often human factors-what some call “institutional problems”-stand in the way. Prominent among them is the time-honored political practice of overstaffing. When maintenance budgets are cut, the tendency is to prune operating funds, rather than staff. This leaves less cash for fuel, parts for machines and vehicles, bitumen for surface mending and cement for bridges and culverts. Meanwhile, staff numbers-and salaries-remain the same, and even increase. This despite the fact there may be no fuel to bring workers to repair sites. One road project searching for idle labor among government staff found some drivers had been without a vehicle so long their driving licences had expired!

Road repair is commonly carried out from camps scattered throughout the highway network. Too frequently, these camps have plenty of store-men, drivers and “turn-boys” (truck drivers´ assistants), but no stores, trucks or fuel. Attempts to get crews to use picks and shovels to repair those roads within walking distance of the camps fail, because doing manual work would mean a loss of status.

Laying off redundant staff is still less politically popular, especially where governments, faced with growing unemployment, want to be seen as creating jobs. Under structural adjustment, some governments are being forced to consider this option. But cutting staff, as an end in itself, isn't the ultimate solution. Strategies must change. and more appropriate organizations and techniques must be developed.

Nature of the network

The nature of the Third World's largely rural road networks must first be understood-including the fact that they are often the physical reverse of road networks in the industrialized countries. In Europe or North America, more than 90 per cent of gazetted road is paved with bitumen or concrete. In developing countries, the officially gazetted proportion of paved surface is usually less than 20 per cent. If the many foot tracks and other small roads in the countryside are included, the percentage is even smaller.

The reason for this reversed situation is basic economics: Paved roads are more expensive to build than earth or gravel ones, but cheaper to maintain. Dirt roads cost less to construct, but more to keep up.

Distribution of paved roads usually reflects the volume of traffic. Roads carrying more than 200 to 250 vehicles a day (both directions, 24 hours) are usually paved because the rate of surface wear and scale of vehicle operating cost savings justifies the higher construction costs. Below this traffic level, the lower cost of building dirt or gravel roads becomes practical. Vehicle traffic is high in industrial countries, and thus paving makes sense.

However, in much of the Third World, where lightly trafficked rural roads are the norm, earth and gravel surfaces predominate. Thus, construction costs will generally be low, but maintenance costs are proportionately much higher. It is the failure of both donors and national or local administrations to recognize this and budget for it that explains why so many developing country roads are in such poor repair.

At this stage, of course, wholesale rehabilitation of the entire developing world's deteriorated road network is neither possible nor economically justified. There has been a call to identify a so-called “core network” of the minimum road distance local areas need and can afford to keep up. One approach features a two-stage procedure, in which screening is first used to divide a network into suitable and unsuitable candidates for improvement. Then the suitable candidates are ranked in order of importance and priority, usually via a standard procedure designed to calculate the economic benefits of each road. Examples are Tanzania's Agricultural Feeder Road Study and Uganda's Southwest Region Agricultural Rehabilitation Project. Both selected only a limited number of roads for rehabilitation.

However, some consider these techniques too complex and time consuming. A simpler procedure, based on locally generated data' is preferable. In Uganda, IT Transport and the Ministry of Local Government are developing a technique using the population served by a road network as an indicator of its importance.

Labor-based maintenance

Planning for road systems in the Third World obviously must include provision for appropriate maintenance, which should draw on local skill and resources.

In practice, this means a shift to labor-based maintenance systems.

In the past, reliance on complex, heavy equipment has generally failed, due to shortages of fuel and spare parts, poor equipment management and a lack of qualified operators and mechanics. In contrast, unskilled labor is a plentiful resource in most developing countries and makes economic sense m many situations.

Of course, equipment haulage should not be ruled out entirely. For example, haulage of gravel by human labor is not economical for distances greater than 200 metres. Between 200 metres and two km, animal haulage is competitive. and for distances greater than two km, equipment haulage is most economical.

However, such equipment need not be large or sophisticated. The labor-based Rural Access Roads Program (RARP) in Kenya used tractors and locally built trailers-for which drivers, mechanics and spare parts were readily available in the program area-rather than more conventional tipper trucks. The RARP was succeeded in the mid-1980s by the Minor Roads Program (MRP), which shifted emphasis from building new access roads to improving and maintaining existing networks. The still-ongoing MRP employs 15 000 to 20 000 casual laborers nationwide and operates a fleet of 1 000 tractors, landrovers, motorcycles and trucks. It currently maintains some 11 000 km of rural gravel and earth roads, using labor-based methods. Over the next five years, labor-based maintenance will be extended to a total of 24 000 km of low-traffic roads, with simpler equipment being employed wherever possible. This will save foreign exchange while creating new jobs.

Effective labor-based methods should complete the work at the same or lower cost than other methods-”cost” here meaning economic cost (which takes account of the opportunity cost of labor and savings in foreign exchange), rather than financial cost.

For maximum efficiency with unskilled labor, an incentive scheme is necessary. The most flexible is a piecework system by which each item of work is paid at an agreed unit rate. Such pieces should be small, typically an average day's output for an individual or group. Such systems work particularly well in Asia. In Africa, where petty contracting is rare and direct government employment the norm, bureaucracies can seldom cope with piecework and a task work system is used. A set day's wage is paid for a specified amount of work or task. Workers have the incentive of finishing work early if the task is completed early. Although most laborers will finish in five hours or less, productivity is still generally higher than for labor employed eight hours a day at fixed daily rates with no incentives.

“Lengthman” systems

Regular attention to small defects is the key to maintenance. In Kenya “lengthman” systems are used for routine maintenance, with individuals assigned specific sections of road to keep up. Sections, usually averaging 1.5 km, may vary according to gradient, soil or number of structures present, as well as from one climatic or topographic zone to another. In dry, flat areas, sections may be two km long, compared to one km for wet, hilly areas.

In Kenya, lengthmen or women are paid a fixed monthly rate for three days' work per week, keeping their sections in good condition. But lack of supervision and subjective views of what constitutes “good condition” can cause problems, and a system was developed to include more direction. An overseer equipped with a motorcycle visits each section every two weeks. He is supported by headmen, recruited from the area near the road and equipped with bicycles, who continuously supervise 10 lengthmen each.

Thus every part of the road network receives constant attention, reducing the risk of deterioration-especially for drainage works where keeping drains and culverts clear road washouts can be avoided. Employment is also provided for men and women in regions where few other job opportunities exist. And the work's part-time nature permits pursuit of other tasks, such as farming.

The system's chief disadvantage is the difficulty of supervision. Each overseer may be in charge of 80 to 100 lengthmen covering 100 to 150 km of a scattered network. Overseers can spend little time on a section, even if there are no motorcycle breakdowns or fuel shortages. Also, while hand labor is good for maintaining side ditches or clearing culverts, it is less adapted to smoothing road surfaces. Thus labor-maintained roads grow rough over time. This is not a serious problem where traffic is 50 vehicles or less per day, but for heavily trafficked roads periodic surface grading may be needed.

Motor grader fleets can play a key role in maintaining earth or gravel roads. But the machines need good workshops, skilled mechanics and specialized spare parts which are often only available from the country of manufacture. Thus there is strong interest in alternative means, such as grading implements towed behind tractors or by draft animals. Even bundles or brushwood, or old tires chained together, have been used. A pilot study in Kenya is testing use of tractor-based units. These consist of 100 HP tractors, five-ton towed graders, a trailer for hauling gravel and scoop and rock ripping attachments for one tractor. It is hoped this arrangement can equal average motor grader output while providing greater flexibility and easier upkeep.

Even with such adaptations, some countries may be unable to keep up their entire road network, and some roads will have to be officially abandoned. If abandoned roads are still needed by local people, self help may be the only option they have for maintaining them. This can take the form of voluntary labor, raising of local financial contributions to hire labor, or so-called Food-for-Work schemes. A large road network in the mountains of Lesotho has been constructed by local women under Food-for-Work programs.

The motivation problem

Technical direction is needed to make such programs work, however, and this can become difficult and expensive if the workforce fluctuates too often. Motivation is also a problem. The classic situation for a self-help scheme is that of an access road serving a single village, for which the beneficiaries are obvious. In practice, roads serve groups of villages, which complicates the task of fair allocation of work or contributions. Self help seems to work best in “one-off” efforts, than with steady, routine maintenance. Self help based on some form of financial contribution probably offers the best solution for maintenance in such cases.

If recognizing such problems is a start, developing countries and their donors have unquestionably begun to tackle the maintenance problem. The scale of work to be done is so large, however, that it may be years before road networks reach acceptable levels. A major forward step has been increased donor willingness to help with maintenance, rather than construction only.

Road systems in many countries may shrink to core networks, but a shift to labor-based maintenance will likely continue and eventually become the norm. In the process, organization of maintenance will change considerably, with upkeep of paved roads being increasingly separated from that of minor, unpaved routes. Investment in road improvement may focus on spot improvement of key links as opposed to wholesale upgrading. Hopefully, this pragmatic approach will lead to more efficient transport networks.