Maintaining roads to keep Afghans connected

When Maliha Binesh was young, elders in her community banned her from attending school because the class was full of boys. Today, Ms Binesh is a civil engineer and the only woman among 34 provincial directors of the Ministry of Public Works.

Ms Binesh, the Director of the Department of Public Works in Badghis province, was one of about 50 officials to attend a workshop funded by the UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID) and organized by UNOPS in Kabul on 11-12 November.

The conference gave all the provincial directors the opportunity to discuss the road maintenance and procurement issues they face, and come up with standard procedures for repairs, including for potholes, cracks and other typical road faults.

Anywhere in the world, roads are crucial for creating access to essential services such as schools and medical clinics, but the lack of funding and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan has made maintenance a real challenge.

"Some of the districts in my Badghis province are only reachable by helicopter because of security issues, which makes repairs and maintenance difficult," Ms Binesh said.

A lack of information on the current conditions of road infrastructure in the country also makes it hard for the Ministry to plan and budget for its maintenance work.

To alleviate this problem, UNOPS is assisting with inventory and condition surveys of all the roads, bridges, culverts and other road infrastructure in Balkh, Ghazni and Helmand provinces, to add to the Ministry of Public Works database.

The work forms part of the $6.9 million Road Rehabilitation and Maintenance Programme's Keep Afghans Connected programme, funded by DFID and implemented by the Ministry in close collaboration with UNOPS.

The Director of the Department of Public Works in Helmand, Ahlullah Zahidi Obaidy, noted that his province had already completed the condition survey in the southern part of the province and now faces the challenge of collecting data in the north, where access is limited due to ongoing conflict.

"When we do the physical survey, we have to coordinate with the Afghan security services to get escorts," Mr Obaidy said. "But using electronic methods of collecting the information is making the process easier and faster," he continued.

UNOPS is providing GPS receivers, video cameras and tablets or mobile phones to the three provinces, and collaborating with non-governmental organization, International Relief and Development, to train local engineers to carry-out the survey, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development.

"There are as many as 20,000 kilometres of road that have been built or rehabilitated over the past decade, but this information was never collected nor compiled by the Ministry of Public Works in a systematic way." said Elizabeth De Benedetti, UNOPS Chief of Party for the Keep Afghans Connected programme.

"By supporting these three pilot provinces to gather this important data, we are assisting the ministry to better plan its maintenance activities and scale up the condition survey to be conducted countrywide by the ministry's own engineers," she continued.

Through the Keep Afghans Connected programme, UNOPS is advising and providing technical assistance to the Ministry for the Rehabilitation and Maintenance of Roads, while supporting the training and development of local staff.

Building on previous experience in Afghanistan, the three-year initiative is designed to develop existing capacity within the ministry to help it meet current and emerging challenges and create a safe and efficient road network.