Nepal is considered one of the least-developed countries in the world. In 2013 it was ranked 157th among 187 countries with respect to the Human Development Index (HDI) and the estimated Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 2012 was EUR 983.5 per capita. Agriculture forms the mainstay of Nepal’s economy. It contributes about one third to the GDP and is the main source of income for 80 % of the population. The agricultural sector is dominated by smallholders and subsistence farmers, whose production only meets household food requirements for an average of 6 to 8 months. The food security situation is especially serious in hill and mountain areas of Mid- and Far-Western Nepal. Here some 30 % of the communities (Village Development Committees, VDCs) were classified as food insecure in 2012. In the far-western districts of Bajhang and Baitadi cereal production is less than 150 kg per capita, which makes import of staple food from the lowland (terai) and bordering India indispensable. Food import is hampered by a small and unreliable transportation network. Nepal is one of the least accessible countries worldwide, with 83 % of the rural population living further than two kilometres off an all-season road. Lack of road access is responsible for high transportation costs, which makes it ever more difficult for poor households to afford additional food items.
A central activity to achieve these objectives was the construction of rural roads, which would serve as “backbones” of socio-economic development in both districts. The road construction approach is described in general terms in the “Rural Road Construction Strategy” (see references). This example illustrates the implementation process in Bajhang and Baitadi and provides detailed information and lessons learned.
Located in the transition zone between the Middle Hills and the Great Himalayan Range in the western most corner of Nepal, Baitadi and Bajhang are two of the least accessible districts of the country. Due to bad road connections it takes about three days to reach them from the capital of Kathmandu by car. Having reached the districts, travelling does not get easier: Baitadi has only one paved, all-weather road, and the first one in Bajhang is under construction. The majority of the 446,000 inhabitants of Bajhang and Baitadi are thus deprived of reliable access to markets and services.
Photo 1: Chilli peppers produced by commercial farming groups are dried on a roof-top
To leverage synergies, ILRA placed great value on cooperation with other donor agencies from the very beginning. In Baitadi and Bajhang cash- and food-for-work schemes were conducted in collaboration with the World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations.
Project Area Identification
Possible districts were identified in consultation with other donors, after analysing secondary data and with the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction’s consent. Then an assessment mission visited the possible districts. The mission presented the framework of potential project activities to the district government, political parties and civil society in the districts. The District Transportation Master Plans of the districts were consulted. Every district in Nepal has to prepare and regularly update such a plan which shows the greatest demand for transportation infrastructure and gives a rough indication of existing and future road alignments. On the plan the mission team sought to identify a road alignment that coincided with communities with a food deficit.
Independent consultants hired by ILRA conducted a detailed survey, developed the design and estimated the volume of work. The valuable knowledge of local people about disaster preparedness was incorporated.
Photo 2: If applicable, roads along the ridge top should be preferred over valley bottom alignments
Setting-up the Project Team
The Rural Road Construction Strategy foresees a locally-based project team which supports community-based organisations (CBOs) in managing the construction process. While overall management of financial and human resources and coordination with government authorities and cooperating partners was the responsibility of a central project management unit based in Kathmandu, responsibility for supporting CBOs, managing food- and- cash-for-work schemes, and the supply with tools and materials was transferred to a local project team in each district. Following this approach, the majority of the project staff lived and worked in field offices at the road construction sites. This set-up made it easy for the beneficiaries to contact staff members in the case of any problems. As a result, the project team was always well-informed of the status of the project and could react swiftly to acute conflicts and bottlenecks. The project teams in each district were headed by a district coordinator who was supported in financial issues by accounting staff. The road construction process itself was facilitated by technicians, technical supervisors and social mobilisers.
Photo 3: Social mobilisers are continuously supported by experienced project staff
Social mobilisers worked in close cooperation with local beneficiaries and fulfilled their tasks more efficiently if they were familiar with local conditions, knew key persons in the communities and had a good knowledge of local habits. Therefore ILRA decided to recruit social mobilisers from the project area. This approach had one major disadvantage: members of staff recruited locally were always embedded in their families and other social networks. This sometimes made it difficult for them to maintain a neutral position, which was a crucial prerequisite for supporting conflict resolution. One solution to this problem was to appoint social mobilisers to work in road sections outside their home VDCs. The project had very good experiences with female social mobilisers. But in the rural areas of Nepal female household members are often expected to fulfil a lot of household chores and working outside the house is not always accepted. So it was crucial to get their families on board. In large road construction schemes like the one chosen in Baitadi (30 km) it was helpful to appoint additional social mobilising coordinators. These were experienced social workers who supported several social mobilisers in fulfilling their tasks and served as a direct link to the district coordinator.
Formation and Training of Community-based Organisations
According to the provisions of the Rural Road Construction Strategy the construction process served as a measure to build long-term organisational capacities in project communities. Thus the management of the construction process and the use and maintenance of new roads were transferred to CBOs. These had been formed by the beneficiaries in a democratic process before the construction began.
Formation and Training of Worker Groups
At the beginning of the implementation phase Worker Groups (WGs) were formed. Supported by social mobilisers and project technicians, UCs divided their respective road section into several subsections for the WGs. Each group consisted of 10 to 15 workers, who were residents of the adjacent VDCs. Each household was allowed to send one member to work. This ensured that a maximum number of households benefitted directly from the road construction. While children below the age of 16 were strictly prohibited to work, the project otherwise provided equal work opportunities for all willing participants, regardless of gender, ethnicity, caste, faith and age. UCs were encouraged to compose WGs in an inclusive manner. In rare cases ILRA supported the formation of women’s groups, which were requested on some occasions (see Box 1). To strengthen the capacities of WGs project technicians and social mobilisers organised training on mass balancing i.e. evening out the road, rock cutting, construction of dry walls, gabion boxes and water management structures, and preventive bio-engineering measures.
Box 1: Social and Economic Empowerment of Women
Establishment of a Social Security and Maintenance Fund (SSMF)
Constructing a road in mountainous terrain is a challenging task and although ILRA made considerable efforts to ensure the workers’ safety (training, high-quality tools), accidents could not be totally prevented. To prepare for such mishaps, the project established a Social Security and Maintenance Fund (SSMF). To build up the fund, ILRA deposited 1 Nepalese Rupee (1 NPR ≈ 0.9 EUR) for each kilogramme of rice distributed to the workers on a special bank account. This money was used to treat injured workers and to compensate the families of the victims of the few fatal accidents which occurred in Bajhang (2 casualties) and Baitadi (1 casualty). This group insurance gave up to 200,000 NPR to the family of a worker who had a fatal accident.
The funds were managed by the Road Federation Committee in collaboration with the district coordinator, who during the project implementation was a signatory of the SSMF. The Road Federation Committee set up clear conditions for the use of its resources. As the name indicated, the fund had a dual function: After the road was finished the remaining resources formed the financial basis for future maintenance works (see Section 4 Maintenance).
Construction Work According to the “Green Road Approach”
The Rural Road Construction Strategy followed the provisions of the “Green Road Approach” which was developed by German and Swiss development cooperation in the late 1970s. A “green road” is a fair-weather road for light vehicles only, which is adapted to local environmental conditions and can easily be maintained by local road users. To generate a maximum of local employment opportunities labour-intensive road construction methods (mainly manual work) were adopted rather than machine-based technologies (e.g. excavators). Special attention was paid to minimising environmental damage. Every year an Environment Measure Plan was conducted to consider which construction problems could occur during that year.
Photo 5: Manual construction techniques used simple tools which were locally available
Worker groups were equipped with hammers, chisels, crowbars, and shovels (see Photo 5). Most of these simple tools could be procured locally. The workers were familiar with their handling. They were repaired by local blacksmiths (see Photo 6), which provided additional employment opportunities on the construction sites.
Photo 6: Local blacksmiths earned additional income by repairing construction tools
In Bajhang and Baitadi, construction works started in December 2009 and January 2010 respectively. Following the provisions of the Green Road Approach, construction was conducted in three phases which were interrupted by two monsoon periods during which construction was stopped (see Figure 1). The road was allowed to settle down over the monsoon period and slope stability was increased by natural compaction processes. This approach produced less excavation material at any one time, which made disposal management much easier. However, in some sections the project team decided to deviate from this general rule: Where agricultural fields on soft soil were affected, the road was constructed in one go in the third construction phase. Otherwise the landowners would have had to protect the remaining parts of their fields with temporary stone walls after each extension phase.
Figure 1: Phased construction allows for natural compaction and increases slope stability
Mass-balancing was of major importance during each construction phase. While conventional road construction approaches often apply box-cutting (i.e. the road is entirely cut into the slope), WGs in Baitadi and Bajhang used a cut-and-fill technique. The centre line of the road was located near the original slope surface and the road was extended by cutting the slope on one side of this line and depositing the material on the other (see Figure 1). Understandably, WGs tended to start working on the soil and soft rock parts within their respective section. But the project team encouraged WGs to start with hard rock parts. This was because otherwise it would have been very difficult to finish the road within a short project time period. While soil and soft rock (e.g. slate) were excavated manually by shovelling, hammering and chiselling, the beneficiaries used the traditional and effective method of “heating and breaking” (see Photo 7) for harder rocks like limestone and dolomite. Only on rare occasions the project team decided to hire an excavator for sections of very hard rock.
Photo 7: Hard rock sections are heated by a fire and become brittle after cooling down over night
Excavated material was primarily used to extend the road on the fill slope side. Bigger stones were stockpiled so that they could be reused for stone structures (e.g. gabion and masonry walls) later on (see Photo 8). If possible, any excess material was deposited in a controlled manner within a buffer of 50 to 100 m from the location where it had been excavated. Local supervisors and project technicians took care that no important drainage lines were blocked and no material was deposited on agricultural land. In cases where this could not be prevented, WGs immediately removed the material so that food production was not hampered.
Photo 8: Excavated stones are stored and reused to construct protective structures
Several stone structures were built to protect the road and prevent landslides and erosion (see Figure 2). Wherever material was deposited on slopes steeper than 30° it was protected by toe walls. These walls are especially important to protect the foundation of uphill gabion walls from erosion. Other protection structures were retaining walls, stabilising the valley side of the road, and breast walls, supporting the remaining cut slope. In soft soil and rock, walls of gabion boxes were preferred over masonry walls, because they are very flexible and stable. They consist of stacked boxes of wire mesh which are filled with stones by the workers. The stability of these walls highly depends on a proper stone packing and a solid foundation (see Photo 9). WGs were trained in both areas at the beginning of the project.
Photo 9: Packing the wire mesh properly is paramount for the stability of walls of gabion boxes
In harder rock sections gabion walls were replaced by masonry walls. Their stability depends to a large extent on proper cement, which itself is dependent on good quality sand. In mountainous areas like Baitadi and Bajhang districts such material is hard to get so that masonry walls were not used often. In cases where only small volumes of material had to be retained (e.g. toe wall), dry walls were used. These consist of stones which are not joined by cement but kept together by their own weight. In both project areas it was not always possible to prevent that the road crossed slope sections which were prone to landslides. In these areas catch drains were built above the sliding zone so that rainwater was diverted away from the slide. In order to prevent erosion damage, existing gullies were blocked by check dams which slow down the rainwater runoff and decrease its erosive power.
Figure 2: A combination of stone structures and bio-engineering techniques was used to protect the road
These prevention structures were complemented by bio-engineering measures. They make use of living plants which reinforce the slope surface through their roots and help control soil erosion and shallow landslides. A combination of brush layering (see Figure 3) and planting of grass and trees proved to be very effective. Only local plants which were adapted to local soil and water conditions were chosen. Beneficiaries who are familiar with the local environment gave useful hints. In some locations additional advantages could be gained by using plants which had additional value as fodder trees. In other areas however, it was decided to use plants which are inedible for livestock, so that grazing on instable slopes was prevented. Some local farmers took over the task of growing the saplings in nurseries. The planting of bushes and trees was done during the monsoon period when all other work was stopped and environmental conditions were best for the saplings to take root.
Figure 3: Locally obtained green cuttings were used for brush layering to stabilise slopes
The road construction schemes in Bajhang and Baitadi districts were integrated into a food- and cash-for-work framework. Workers were paid with a combination of cash, rice and pulses and payment was based on accomplished outputs, not on a fixed daily rate. This mode of payment provides an incentive for the workers. It accelerates the construction process and rewards dedicated groups.
Photo 10: Publicly available project books guaranteed transparency and accountability
Settling Land Conflicts
Photo 11: Land conflicts arose especially in areas where existing infrastructure was affected by the road construction
Resolving land-related conflicts and persuading worried landowners of the advantages of the new road was the responsibility of the UCs, the Road Federation Committees and the government authorities. The ILRA project team only supported the conciliation process by facilitating meetings and mediating between different interests. In addition social mobilisers supported UCs in defining clear procedures for developing solutions to conflicts. These were always based on consensus, so that the issues were settled irrevocably. Solutions sometimes included indirect compensation through side-project activities (e.g. provision of a green house, rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure).
In Bajhang the 16 km long road was officially opened in January 2012 (see Photos 12 and 13) – just two years after the construction work began. In Baitadi the road construction took longer. This was due to its greater length and more challenging geological conditions i.e. large parts of hard rock along the alignment. The project financed the repairs to the road in Bajhang when it got damaged especially during the first rainy season after road completion. To minimise the required maintenance in the first place, the roads are closed for vehicles during the rainy season (June to September) and its use is restricted to light vehicles like jeeps throughout the year. The Rural Road Construction Strategy emphasises ownership and responsibility of local road users. ILRA supported beneficiaries financially and technically in establishing a sustainable maintenance system, which is based on clear rules and responsibilities.
Overall responsibility for the use and maintenance lies with the Road Federation Committee. This is expected to enforce restrictions. In both project areas the Road Federation Committees formed a maintenance sub-committee and reported signs of road damage immediately to this group.
After construction work finished, the SSMF was no longer needed to compensate victims of accidents and the remaining money was exclusively earmarked for future repair works. Before the end of the project UCs received training in road maintenance and an engineer made them aware of the more vulnerable parts. The UCs and the Road Federation Committee also took part in bio-engineering training. In a “By-Law Workshop” the Road Federation Committee and the District Development Committee divided up the responsibility for maintenance amongst themselves. On an annual basis the District Development Committee allocates funding for the maintenance of the road. Each section of the road has two paid so called caretakers during the rainy season. By building water channels, small stone structures or by repairing slight damages they try to minimise damage to the road caused by water. Social mobilisers monitored the work of the caretakers during the project duration, after the end of the project the Road Federation took over this task. If the damage is too significant for a caretaker, the Road Federation contacts the District Development Committee. The District Development Committee commissions one of its engineers to assess the damage and pays for the repair. The UCs hire workers. The engineer examines their work before they are paid.
In Bajhang, it was decided that vehicle owners would be charged for the use of the road and a simple but efficient tolling system of 50 NPR per vehicle was implemented. The money goes to the SSMF.
The road construction schemes of ILRA offered employment opportunities to around 9,000 individuals; this benefitted their families also, altogether 50,000 people. It is estimated that about 100,000 people benefitted directly or indirectly from the new roads:
Photo 21: At the end point of the road in Bajhang more than 20 new shops were opened
New transportation businesses were started by beneficiaries. In Bajhang for instance, there are currently 8 jeeps and 6 tractors offering regular connections and 2 so called ‘mini Tata vehicles’ being driven along the road on occasion.