When the Lamosangu-Jiri road was commissioned in 1985, it marked a turning point in the life of this sleepy town in the middle of nowhere.
This was the first highway designed not to be just a highway but one that took socio-economic costs and benefits to rural Nepal into account. It aimed to maximise benefits for the local population by providing access while reducing the impact on the villages of being suddenly opened up to the outside world.
Technically, the highway was a marvel of engineering. The Swiss who helped build it brought their experience from the Alps and aimed to reduce landslides and erosion with innovations that they hoped would serve as a model for other mountain highways in Nepal.
Now, 20 years later, the impact of the Lamosangu-Jiri Highway appears to have been positive. The road opened up Dolakha, Charikot and the remote Ramechhap districts and the integrated rural development effort that followed construction tried to ensure that the local economy took advantage of access.
The Swiss invested heavily in community forestry, soil management, trail bridge building, district roads and rural health activities. Agricultural extension allowed farmers to grow value-added crops and the road became a backbone to take the produce to market and increase family income.
Jiri became the roadhead for the Everest trek and its economy was transformed by tourism. Dolakha was no more a food deficit area, the road opened up markets for the region's produce which included cheese, herbs, potatoes and vegetables. The Khimti hydropower project wouldn't have been feasible without the road, and other potential generation sites are now viable because of feeder roads. Jiri's dairies went through a boom since the road brought Kathmandu Valley within reach.
Bitumen emulsion was used as a binder for black-topping which reduced the reliance on firewood to melt the asphalt. Bio-engineering techniques were applied for the first time to stabilise slopes along the alignment. abion baskets filled with boulders were used here for the first time. Many of these techniques have since been applied successfully on other roads in Nepal. Environment friendly construction has kept the highway relatively landslide free, and blockages during the monsoon are much rarer than in other highways in Nepal. The engineers settled for a three-metre one lane highway with wide hairpins, good drainage and a system of maintenance by lengthworkers from local communities.
"It's amazing, the road is still in good shape after 20 years even though the resealing which should have been done every five years was not done," says Devendra Dhar Pradhananga, the highway's project manager. He believes regular and planned maintenance is not a technical issue, not even financial, but an institutional, political and administrative problem. The entire road is now being resurfaced and the work is expected to be finished by end July.
Road engineer CK Lal, agrees the Jiri road is a model for highway engineering in the mountains but says it was too expensive. "The main problem with replicating it is that it wasn't cheap to build and isn't cheap to maintain," he says.
The Swiss say the road took relatively long to build since it was purposely made labour-intensive to provide local employment, and it cost Rs 250 million for the entire 110 km stretch in1985 prices, which was relatively cheap.
"The most important lesson of the Jiri road is the change from ad hoc road maintenance to the concept of planned road maintenance carried out locally by lengthworkers," says Jorg Frieden of Swiss Development Cooperation in Nepal, "the other important innovations were the use of bio-engineering and environmental friendly road construction techniques."