Last December Maoist insurgents destroyed a vital suspension bridge over the Karnali river at Regilghat in Kalikot. Thousands of villagers were affected, the bridge was their social and economic lifeline. Children could not attend school and basic commodities like salt, cooking oil and grain were in short supply.
Suddenly, residents across the mighty Karnali could as well have been living on the other side of the country. The district headquarters, Manma, which used to be less than a three-hour walk away when the suspension bridge was in place was now at least two days away. Neighbouring districts also felt the effect of the destruction of a lifeline-the postal service to Mugu, Bajura and Achham was disrupted. What the Maoists had done was bomb Kalikot back to the 1950s.
When Swiss geologist Toni Hagen was walking across Nepal 50 years ago, he would ask villagers what they wanted the most: a school, a health post, a road. In village after village, the answer was the same: "We want a bridge." A bridge was and still is a vital communication link in most of roadless Nepal.
Today, suspension bridges scattered across the Nepali hills are the mainstay of rural transportation. The Swiss experts invited in at the beginning of Nepal's planned development endeavours in the late 1950s recommended that river crossing facilities for isolated communities and settlements would be the key to the country's economic development. In 1964, the government established the Suspension Bridge Division (SBD) under the Ministry of Works and Transport, and eight years later Helvetas (the Swiss Association for International Co-operation) came up with technical and financial support. Later on, the US and the British governments and multilateral agencies like the Asian Development Bank also got involved.
Since it was established, the SBD has constructed some 500 bridges in 61 districts with a cumulative span than now exceeds 50 km. The bridges have been instrumental in catalysing economic activities and social changes in their localities. A 1999 bridge impact study found, for example, that following a construction of the a suspension bridge at Sitka Ghat in Ramechhap, the sleepy, isolated settlement evolved into a vibrant market square that on average does Rs 80,000 worth of busines everyday. Four years after the bridge was built, land prices shot up by 1,140 percent.
Most rural communities know all too well the advantages a simple suspension bridge can bring. Every year the SBD receives requests for 100 to 200 new bridges, but the government can only take on about a quarter of those requests. An overwhelming 95 percent of the requests come from communities who desperately need short span (under 120 metres) pedestrian bridges to ease communications.
New Nepali adaptations have been made to the bridges after studying how they are used. For instance, bridges are also important crossing points for livestock, mule and yak trains. Animals are terrified of suspension bridges and villagers goading water buffalos or yaks to cross a bridge is a common daily sight across Nepal. In addition, early bridges used to have planks and the hooves of goats and cattle used to get stuck in the gaps between them. The design was changed, and the new models now have grills that ensure a good grip for both shoes and hooves. Suspension bridges also used to sway in the wind, and they are now reinforced with side wires and much more care is taken in site selection and reinforcements so that bridges don't get washed off in flash floods.
Strengthening communities economically and socially is only one aspect of Nepal's bridge-building success story. When the government started its accelerated bridge construction at important locations along major trade routes in the mid-sixties, the technology was fabricated in Scotland and constructed by a Scottish firm. Pedestrian trail bridges, for their part, benefited greatly from Swiss technical expertise. But the country has come a long way. Now, Nepali technicians are responsible for designing and constructing suspension bridges, and communities are being mobilised for the maintenance. As a result, bridge technology is cheaper, and bridges can be located at more strategically appropriate locations to benefit the maximum number of users. Accounting for time saved by a construction of a suspension bridge in conservative manner of Rs. 5 per hour, the 1999 impact study found that Molung bridge in Okhaldhuga district recouped its cost in 1.5 years, while better located Sitkaghat bridge took less than six months.
Once there were enough trained personnel to build bridges, the challenge was to spread that knowledge around and get more people involved in the building and maintenance process. So, engineering institutes now help design bridges, but also conduct classes on suspension bridge technology. Private firms are also encouraged to design and even construct the bridges. Everyone involved in building bridges is now so confident, there are some pretty ambitious projects being undertaken. The central government, together with local government bodies and partners in the private sector, are now all set to construct a 1,450 metre-long pedestrian bridge joining the Dudhara and Chadani villages that lie across the Mahakali, with the rest of the nation. The proposed bridge will be the longest and most technically advanced pedestrian bridge built by Nepali technicians so far.
Soon, bridge-building will be an all-Nepali venture. The Swiss government, whose financial contribution has over the years come down from 100 percent to 37 percent, will next month formalise the final five-year phase of its support. Jan Roukema, Project Manager of the Trial Bridge Sub-Sector Project at Helvetas says: "We will now be decentralising the construction and maintenance of suspension bridges."
The Suspension Bridge Division was shifted to the Ministry of Local Development last year. Under the Local Self Governance Act, two-thirds of the bridges in place have been handed over to local governments and communities. Proposals coming from local groups that actively involve women and marginalised communities are prioritised, says Roukema. Village groups identify the need for bridges and provide locally available construction materials and labour, and take charge of routine maintenance. The costs of major maintenance are shared by the government and District Development Committees equally.
The people who actually need and use the bridges in this way have a far greater sense of ownership and thus responsibility. And it shows. Instead of the few dozen bridges that used to get constructed annually earlier, in the last year, the Helvetas project partnered with the SBD and got local government and communities involved-to construct 165 bridges. Even old bridges were upgraded, with steel grating replacing the wooden walkway decks.
The concept of local ownership is great in theory, and even in practice, as this shows. But there are some stumbling blocks. "Local governments everywhere are not confident about their technical capacity to build and maintain bridges. So, though they are willing to take over identifying the specific crossing needs and managing the budget, they are hesitant to take over the technical part," said Neeraj Shah, Project Manager at SBD. And this cannot be resolved unless another major problem is addressed-the high mobility among the young and skilled people makes it difficult to develop local skills to sustain the bridges.
The only way to deal with this is by emphasising the social impact of bridges, getting them to realise that with a bridge there might perhaps be less reason to move away. It takes time, but it happens. Says Shiv Chandra Kantha, Deputy Programme Manager of the Helvetas project: "Initially, the social elements of development activities were hard to see, but now all our partners have realised that society cannot be alienated from development activities."