Wheel Barrows, weeds and local labour build “gentler” and cheaper roads.
Construction foreman Pashupati Dawadi had helped build many roads in his lifetime. But sowing millet on a newly dug surface? He had never seen that before,
Yet the instruction from engineer Hare Ram Shrestha had been to sow millet on the freshly completed six-kilometre stretch of the Dhading Besi – Salmetar road. Partly in jest, the foreman had asked: “Sir, did you study the same engineering as others?”
In response, Shrestha had merely said that he was “trying to demonstrate a ‘way’ to grow weeds.” His intention was to give the road a “green top.”
The Dhading road holds more surprises. Unlike the scene at most road construction sites in the Himalaya, there is not a single heavy machine nor a scar of any kind to be seen on the landscape of this 57-kilometre road. Says Shrestha, “The most sophisticated mechanical equipment used here is a wheelbarrow.”
“At first, I was afraid when I heard a road was coming to the village”, says Hari Bahadur Larnsal, a resident of Mukhiathok, a village on the road. “I lost some land and about 22 fodder trees, but it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. Had the bulldozers come, the road would have caused more damage, And the blasting that comes with big projects would have created a lot of disturbance.”
Hari Bahadur’s sentiment is shared by . other villagers who are thankful to have escaped the din and dust of big construction machinery and the invasion of an outside work-force. Instead, the “green road,” as engineer Shrestha called it, had given them work, and the villagers were pleased to discover that roads did not necessarily mean defaced hillsides.
Most villagers have heard of construction sites where bulldozers rain debris into farmfields; or of roads being built so that the wayside drainage pours into them. But in Dhading, the debris had been arranged in terraces so as to reduce erosion and soil run- off. Here the road builders had taken care not to scatter debris even where no damage was possible.
One reason, according to Chet Nath Lamsal of Murali Bhanjyang, is that the road labourers were not from elsewhere. “Since all of us are from here, we take special care to minimize the damage to our own fields.”
Work on the road had also brought villagers added cash income. Wages of NRs. 24 per day are to be revised to NRs. 36 per day, of which 20 percent is deducted as a “participatory cut,” and which some had contributed in land and labour. A government official called this practice “exploitation in the name of participation,” but villagers have not groused. “There is now more money to spend,” said Hari Bahadur, whose son too works as a labourer.
The brainchild of Swiss engineer Warner Paul Meyer, “green roads” were first promoted in Nepal by East Consult Pvt.’s director, P.C. Joshi. Work on the first Nepali “green road” started in Palpa district in 1986. The 59-kilometre road in Palpa began as a 23-kilometre rural track constructed through private initiative, and is now under the joint supervision of Helvetas-Nepal and East Consult.
The Palpa and Dhading roads both use simple building technology that is labour based. Designed for slow traffic, the road’s alignment follows the terrain contour, thereby eliminating the need for sophisticated and expensive earthwork. Construction is cheap; a four-metre wide earth road with appropriate by-passes and a 20 km/hr speed design like the Palpa road, can be built at NRs 200,000 to 300,000 per kilometre, according to P.C. Joshi. A similar road built by the Department of Roads costs at least two to three times more.
Engineer Hare Ram Shrestha, engaged in the Dhading Besi – Salmetar road, says the approach is unique and unlikely to be found in engineering textbooks. Engineer Govinda Narayan Mallick, in the Bhim Dhunga section, explains: “We combine our knowledge of theoretical principles with practical solutions to problems.”
The main principle used is that of “balancing the mass,” which makes unnecessary voluminous cutting and dumping of land. Whatever soil is hewn from the slope is used on the road, and so there is no need to import mud. And since this method is directly and immediately implementable, the chances of “mass wasting,” or failure of large chunks of land and other effects that normally lead to landslides are reduced, says Dipak Gyawali, an independent engineer-economist in Kathmandu.
Another basic technique is known as “gradual widening,” which means that all widening work is stopped until the initial cut has had a year to “heal.” All work comes to a halt during the rainy season, the main “healing” period. In addition, the roads are built following the “half-filling, half-cutting” method.
No drainage canals are needed on these roads. In Palpa and Dhading, the surface of the road was built with a five percent outward slope, thus allowing the drainage to talc place as it does in terraced fields. Where the road slopes gently, it is covered with grass, which reduces the velocity of the run-off water, which, in turn, reduces the pressure on the dry stone causeways.
At the “green roads,” trees that were in the path of construction were not chopped down but laid horizontally at the side of the road, their trunks serving as support to the road. The stumps have since regenerated and carry green outgrowth. In some instances, trees were left to stand in the middle of the road and will be cut only if cars are ever to run there.
Road engineers in love with conventional building methods and large projects will disbelieve the cost of structures used on the Dhading road. The builders claim that the causeways of dry-stone soiling are six times cheaper than rod-cement structures of the same specifications. The dry walls are about 4.5 times cheaper than gabion walls, and the gabion walls are nine times cheaper than stone masonry walls. Still cheaper are the retaining walls on the Bhim Dhunga road – used, earth-filled cement bags that replace the customary boulders. Besides being cheaper, the structures are reported to be serving their purpose well.For the villagers, the road has also meant the opportunity to learn building and maintenance technologies. Dhan Bahadur Khattri of Jyamere, for instance, is thrilled that learning to build retaining walls and causeways will have other applications in the village.
In Nepal, and the rest of the Himalaya, where a motorable road is generally regarded as the harbinger of development, rural roads become especially important as they bring basic consumer goods to villagers and provide local producers easy access to the market. While “green engineering” may not prove feasible in major highway construction, the concept applied in rural areas may well be the answer for engineers, economists, environmentalists and villagers.
Kedar Sharma is with Nepal Press Institute and Binod Bhattarai is a freelance journalist.