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The roads hard traveled: paving Cambodia's future

The roads hard traveled: paving Cambodia's future


The Asian Develop-ment Bank's (ADB) resident represent-ative, Urooj Malik, knows

the limitat-ions of Cambodia's major 'highways' only too well.

"Recently I went from Sihanoukville to Poipet. We had to take a boat to Koh

Kong because the road was so bad, and then we traveled north by Thai roads. The

difference in the quality of the infra-structure was just incredible," he


That is a story people who live and work in rural Cambodia know only too


The new Japanese-funded bridge at Kampong Cham due to open December 4.

The 118 kilometer journey from Takhmau to Kirivong along Route 2,

for example, can take up to five hours in the best 4WD vehicle. By motodup or

oxcart the trip is even more exhausting.

However with funding from the

ADB and other donors, relief for those who live, work or travel in the more

remote parts of Cambodia is on the way, says the Ministry of Public Works and

Transport (MPWT).

"Before the war we had 34,000 kilometers of paved road

in Cambodia. Now we've got only 350 kilometers," says MPWT project director,

Chhin Kong Hean. "Now if we want to go to Rattanakiri we can't go. And if we

want to go to Preah Vihear we can't go, because we don't have a road [suitable]

for all seasons."

The MPWT aims to rehabilitate around 1,000 kilometers

of road each year until 2005. It expects that the country's network of major

roads will by then be completed. Major milestones should be finished even



We expect that by the end of 2003 we will be able to drive to Ho Chi Minh

City or Bangkok," says MPWT's Chhin Kong Hean.

As any skilful politicians

knows, roads mean votes. Prime Minister Hun Sen has exploited the dire state of

the country's roads this year. In one well-known case he loaded a bus with his

ministers and forced them to endure an uncomfortable ride on Cambodia's potholed

roads while berating them over their lack of progress.

For the Prime

Minister, the war on roads is a 'win-win' situation. If the Funcinpec Minister

for Public Works and Transport, Khy Tainglim, can speed up the improvements to

Cambodia's roads, the PM can take the credit. If he fails, then the minister

will doubtless get the blame.

The PM got agreement in a November 13

meeting with Thai Prime Minister Thaskin Shinawatra that will see the Thais fund

two roads linking Thai provinces to Cambodian towns. The first will run from Si

Sa Ket via Anlong Veng to Siem Reap; the second from Trat to Koh


But Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker and former chair of the public works

committee, Son Chhay, is critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen's interference in

the portfolio and skeptical about the 2005 completion date.

"The Prime

Minister says one thing then he does something else. You have to give the full

responsibility to the minister to do the job. Sometimes the company will go

straight to the Prime Minister and he will sign the proposal letter which

violates all the procedures," says Chhay. If and when the contractor does a poor

job, he continues, the minister can only protest that the decision had nothing

to do with him.

Chhay is also critical of the government's attitude

towards privatizing roads. Earlier this year the government announced it was

handing Route 4, built with US taxpayers' money, to a private company to operate

as a tollroad. Chhay expects he will see more privatization of donor funded

roads in the future.

ADB's Malik agrees that is possible.

"In the

not-too-distant future, on the country to country roads where the traffic

[volume] is high and where there is trade, tourism and so on, Cambodia needs to

consider tollroads. Eventually those roads will need to be widened and funds for

that will probably need to come from private investment," he says.


of Cambodia's road network was built by the French during the 1920s and 1930s.

Since then it has been subject to floods, war, land mines, ever-increasing

traffic volume, overloaded trucks and, for much of the network, a distinct lack

of maintenance.

Pressure on the dilapidated system is increasing rapidly.

Despite Cambodia's extensive network of waterways, roads are still the dominant

transport route for most people. According to the government's draft

Socio-Economic Development Plan, 65 percent of passenger kilometers per year are

travelled by road. Almost 70 percent of freight goes by road.

The problem

for the MPWT is that all forms of traffic are rapidly expanding. Between 1994

and 1999, cargo volume on Cambodia's roads grew by 18 percent per year while

passenger traffic more than tripled.

Large sections of major highways are

maintained only by locals who spend their days filling in some of the larger

potholes in exchange for tips from passing motorists. On other stretches the

potholes are so large and waterlogged they have families of ducks living in


Almost 40 percent of the ADB's half billion dollar portfolio of

loans to Cambodia is for transport. Much of that is for roads, and roads don't

come cheap. Simply to rehabilitate one kilometer of highway costs around

$200,000. To rebuild costs much more and is still well beyond the country's


The original French highways are between four and six meters wide,

which is too narrow for contemporary needs. Under rehabilitation projects the

roads are being resurfaced and widened to 11 meters.

Cambodia poses

particular challenges for road builders. Most of the land surface is comprised

of 'dispersive clay', a silty soil which erodes easily. Flooding causes further

problems by washing away large sections of poorly maintained highways and

slowing down the rehabilitation work carried out by road contractors. Then there

are landmines and other unexploded ordinance that must be cleared from the roads

before construction can begin.

Several of Cambodia's major highways are

forced to play a dual role of being both a road and a dike during flooding. The

flooding of the Tonle Sap, for example, is only contained by Route 6 to the

north and Route 5 to the south.

During the dry season, contractors place

a one or two centimeter layer of bitumen and stone over the existing highway to

seal and protect the road surface. With proper maintenance the road should last

around ten years.

Maintenance is an ongoing and contentious issue.

Although the banks fund road repairs, they treat maintenance as a problem for

government. The Ministry of Economy and Finance has proven reluctant to release

funds to the MPWT with the result that expensively rehabilitated roads

deteriorate rapidly.

This is particularly evident with overloaded trucks.

After a dozen bridges collapsed and large sections of road were washed away

during this year's floods, the Prime Minister angrily blamed overloaded logging

trucks for their exponential effect on road wear.

The MPWT has teams

monitoring overloaded trucks and is investigating setting up a network of weigh

stations. Weigh stations and fines discourage overloaded trucks, but so far have

not stopped them.

In February the Post paid a one hour visit to a weigh

station on Route 4. All of the 20 trucks spot checked there were between five

and twelve tons overweight.

"We are in constant dialogue with the

government on addressing the issue of damage to the roads. Trucks are

consistently running right over the legal limit," said the ADB's Malik. Roads,

he says, are an essential building block of development.

"It's been

demonstrated many times that roads provide enormous benefits in terms of access

to markets, to health services and education," he said, before sounding a note

of caution. "However, we also need to bear in mind ways to avoid collateral

damage. We don't want illegal logs going along those roads and we have to be

cognizant of the huge HIV/AIDS problem."


Where, when, how much


The ADB is the largest single contributor to road funding in Cambodia.

Through its Primary Roads Project it is contributing to the rehabilitation of

large sections of Routes 5, 6 and 7, and making Route 1 to Vietnam a major

transport route. It will also contribute around $40 million in emergency flood

repairs, and has agreed in principle to link Sisophon with Poipet on the Thai

border - although Hun Sen seeks direct funding from Thailand for this.

The 577 kilometers of roads restored under the Primary Roads Project

will be finished by 2003 with funding of $68 million from the ADB and the $20

million shortfall coming from the government. The project will make Siem Reap,

Battambang and Poipet accessible by car, bus or motorbike .

The work

along Route 7 will make Kratie easily accessible by car for the first time in

decades via the new Japanese-funded road and bridge at Kampong Cham. The bridge

will open December 4.

Kong Hean said the MPWT is currently seeking

Chinese funds to go beyond Kratie to Stung Treng and eventually Laos. Other

sections of Route 6 to Siem Reap are being restored with $47 million from the

World Bank and Japanese grant aid.

Route 1 from Neak Leung to the

Vietnamese border is already under construction with a $40 million ADB loan. A

$10 million Japanese grant will cover the remaining repairs to the road from

Neak Leung to Phnom Penh. This road, even in its current condition carries

around 2 million passengers per year. A savings of $10 million is expected from

the ADB section of this loan and has been earmarked for repairs to Route


The ADB has provided $600,000 to repair Phnom Penh to Takeo along

Route 2; from Takeo to the Vietnamese border will be rehabilitated with Japanese

grant aid in "the next few years" according to the MPWT which is in the process

of selecting a design consultant.

The World Bank will loan $50 million

for a road from Siem Reap to Preah Vihear. A feasibility study is currently

being carried out on that project.

Route 3 to Kampot is under repair.

Cash has come from emergency flood repair money provided by the World Bank. A

feasibility study on the road from Kampot to Prey Nup will be completed with

South Korean grant aid by the end of this year, with implementation scheduled

for 2003.

Long term plans include a coastal road from Ho Chi Minh to

Bangkok "in the next 20 years", said Kong Hean.


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