Opportunity in Uganda’s Road Crisis? Lessons from China

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By Nnanda Kizito Sseruwagi

I was initially depressed when pondering this article. The crisis of Uganda’s roads depresses many of us. I don’t think it is necessary to explain or emphasize the wreckage of what used to be the roads and the dreams and potential we have lost economically and humanly with the loss of precious lives in avoidable accidents.  But I was later rescued from my depression with the realisation that something could be done. Something must be done.

So, I will focus more on the opportunities buried in the mess of Uganda’s dilapidated transport infrastructure.

In more developed countries, it is extremely hard to have accidents on highways and even in the city because of the width of the roads. Not only are their roads wide, but they are also two-way lanes, meaning they have only one lane taking vehicles in each direction. Therefore, cars can hardly collide or struggle in messy traffic caused by competition for space on single-track roads as we occasionally see in Uganda. Motorcycles are also given separate lanes which both reduces their traffic while mitigating accidents.

I had never reflected seriously about the state of our roads until I travelled to China. Let me first satiate you with the excellence of China’s road network.

Almost all roads in China are two-way laned, both for roads in the city suburbs and the expressways that stretch to China’s furthest villages. These roads are mostly flat. This is to say, any barrier to the flat flow of the road meets the insurmountable human will and engineering dare-devil attitude of Chinese road constructors. For every slope down one mountain to another or over a river or a lake, the Chinese will erect huge pillars of steel and concrete and suspend a bridge stretching the entire length that nature decided to go. In case the land along which the roads curve is flat, but is blocked by a small mountain, the Chinese will dig a tunnel to create a way through the stomach of the mountain. And since they have two-way lanes, these tunnels are always two. And are equally very wide and well-lit.

The engineering art required to think these roads into existence pales away in contrast to the courage it takes to look at a mountain and say; “you shall make a way for our people!”. The Biblical Moses laid a stick to split the water for Israelites to move, but the Chinese engineering Moseses suspend tons of concrete high above the water and make a way for their people. One construction feat accomplished in China recently was the Sanyuan Bridge in Beijing, where a 1,300-ton bridge was replaced in just 43 hours.

But to avoid this article sounding like a song of praise for China’s road infrastructure greatness, I will turn to the opportunities Uganda has in its failing road network.

Of course, my thoughts are generalized observations in a way because there are so many material factors which make China function in a different way from Uganda. But we still share a lot in common and have several factors in our favour supporting transformation.

One of the advantages China has over us is its land tenure system which is flexible for the government to implement road construction projects without the bloated compensation claims and long court battles involved with road construction projects in Uganda. I strongly believe that it will be very hard and expensive for Uganda to develop if we keep the system of private land ownership. But that’s a whole topic for another article/book.

Here are the opportunities. For each road we see in Uganda today, we need one more going in the opposite direction. We can and should adopt the policy of two-way lanes. I know it sounds expensive and hard but Uganda is a small country with abundant unexploited resources. We have enough concrete to build up this country excellently. This spells big business for road construction companies. And for our unemployed engineering graduates.

The government should incentivise students to study civil and architectural engineering if we are serious about industrialising this country. Costs in health, business/investment and trade sectors will be indirectly met if we succeed in having a well-built environment. For example, a lot of the cases of disease and accidents which eat up our national health budget are caused by poor living conditions due to bad housing, shoddy drainage and poor road networks. These can be curbed by developing a high-level engineering industry to build up this country.

The Chinese are so obsessed with roads. They have many well-paved and wide roads. I think every developing country should study this obsession. We should first and foremost plan and build our roads and then consider space for other buildings. That’s how we shall build an organised city. And it’s on those roads that our economy will run and take off.

The writer is a senior research fellow, Development Watch Centre.




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