Monday, April 25, 2011

Lusaka-Chirundu Road and Summer Research

Road after rainstorm

Road when originally completed.
Here are a couple of 2009 photos of the Lusaka-Chirundu road, another problematic Chinese construction project, this one a key link between Zambia and its southern neighbors. China Henan was the company in this case. A hat tip to Wei for this story.

This project -- along with the crumbling Angola hospital -- was part of this week's Economist story on China and Africa. The Economist reported that the "The Chinese-built road from Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, to Chirundu, 130km (81 miles) to the south-east, was quickly swept away by rains." Well, I don't think the entire road was quickly swept away by rains, but clearly a chunk of it was.

For another Zambia story on the heavy pressure some of these roads are under, see this Lusaka Times story. Researchers: Zambia provides a wealth of examples of comparative road construction. In this story from 2005, we can see the mention of a Chinese company, a local firm (Sable) and a South African company: Steffanutti and Bressan, all with similar contracts. What an interesting summer research project: comparative analysis of the state of these Zambian roads today, based on contracts awarded in 2005.


Carlos Oya said...

I totally agree. With so many young researchers willing to do PhD on China's engagement in Africa (what a popular subject!), I think a serious comparative analysis like the one you mention is in high order. This would be important to overcome some of the usual biases in reporting. Indeed, some Chinese construction projects crumble but as I have witnessed over the years in countries like Mozambique and Senegal, so many road projects crumble after 2-3 years! Financed and built by a variety of agencies and companies... a bit of serious/rigorous comparative analysis please!

Chike Chukudebelu said...

I am African and I live in Africa. I am also speaking as someone with training in both Engineering and Geology.

Road projects in sedimentary environments in Africa tend to crumble, not just Chinese made roads. There are some factors responsible for that:

1. Since roads are scarce, there is a lot of traffic from heavy duty trucks. You could imagine the kind of damage Cement bearing trucks put on the road. Look at the size of the truck (tractor-trailer in American speak in the photograph).

2. It is increasingly obvious that asphalt may not be the best medium for road construction. In Nigeria, we have the same problem and many professionals are clamouring for the use of concrete.

3. African politicians don't want to build durable roads. A durable road means that there is less room to re-award contracts for the construction the road / less room for maintenance contracts. African politicians usually make a lot of money from kick-backs on road construction.

All said, a badly constructed road is better than no road.

Deborah Brautigam said...

Thanks Carlos and Chike for your helpful comments. Insightful. I will ponder all this as I drive to work over some amazingly pot-holed roads in my county!

Anonymous said...

If Chinese-built roads in Africa have a tendency to crumble like many other roads constructed by other countries, then tell me what is the use to shift to Chinese expertise? To make a lot of hot air?

Chike Chukudebelu said...


I didn't say that Chinese-built roads have a tendency to crumble. What I said is that heavily used roads built on weak soil have a tendency to crumble irrespective of who built them. Africa has an infrastructure deficit, so whatever roads that exist tend to be very heavily used.

Very few people are willing to finance the construction of roads in Africa. The Chinese are willing, but they naturally would like to give the work to their own contractors. Poorer African countries like Chad and Burkina Faso and Nigerian states with tight budgets might have no option but to use the Chinese.

Secondly, having travelled to African countries like Kenya, Benin and Ghana. I know the Chinese CAN BUILD high quality infrastructure. Other forms of transportation like rail and river barges need to be developed to take the pressure off the roads.

Carlos Oya said...

Chike points the fingers to key aspects of road building, seldom taken seriously when people aim to criticise China's support to infrastructure. Since RCTs (randomized control trials) are so in vogue now, why not randomly allocating road projects financed/built by different agencies/companies and see the results? ;-)

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with Chike Chukudebelu's view according to which a crumbling road is better than no road at all. Crumbling roads are bad things and no road is also bad. Only good old reliable roads are good especially in developing countries (to state the obvious).

Chike Chukudebelu said...


It costs less to repair a crumbling road than to build a road from scratch. You'll also be surprised at how much trade is done on bicycle / motorcycle in Africa.

The road shown is a particularly bad example. But a road that is unusable for motor vehicles could be used by bicycles and motorcycles. This is much better than hacking through the bush with a machete whilst carrying palm oil on a bicycle.

I've spent my entire life travelling on bad roads, and I prefer them to no roads. The road to my home town is particularly bad - during the rainy season the clayey soil sticks to your tires and you struggle with the steering wheel to move. The road is bad but it is still an improvement to no road - my Dad had to walk several kilometres when growing up.

Please don't get me wrong, I am not defending or excusing shoddy work, but investment is so scarce, progress is so slow and hope is in such short supply that third best is still better than nothing in many parts of Africa.

kurt9 said...

Although I have never been to Africa, Chike's comments make sense to me with regards to roads. A rapidly developing place like Africa with few roads is going to what few road it has heavily used. This is obvious. What is also obvious is that rail links need to be built to take some of the heavier loads off of the roads, especially ones being transported long distance where the time delay of on and off loading the train is not so much of an issue.

Intermodal (where shipping containers are transported by ship, train, and truck without being opened) is where you really want to go in cargo transportation.

Repairing a poorly built road is cheaper than building a new road because the grading and what not is mostly done (this takes the bulk of the time in building new roads). paving and repaving is not so time-consuming.

Anonymous said...

I see that you were (fortunately) not the ones involved in the crumbling roads while driving from Lusaka to Chirundu!

Anonymous said...

The colonials still have their lap dogs barking, prostituting themselves for food scraps from their masters table

Anonymous said...

On May 18th, Kenya's Business Daily had an article written by George Wachira, Director of Petroleum Focus Consultants. He had an description regarding Chinese project execution in Kenya:

Let us now move to the realities and experiences on the ground here in Kenya.

There is something unique and useful we Kenyans are learning from the Chinese involvement in various civil and structural projects (airports, roads and pipelines).

There appears to be a general consensus that Chinese financed or contracted projects are executed professionally, delivering quality, more often than not meeting deadlines, and projects are mostly on budget.

For the projects which are competitively procured we can also say that the Chinese have most of the times offered the lowest project costs.
Kenya: Mutual Benefits and Trust Drive Country's Deepening Development Ties With China


Deborah Brautigam said...

Thanks for that link, Wei. I read the article and found it very sensible (in another example of authors not being able to choose their titles, this title made me think it was something put out by Xinhua. But actually Machira notes that if mutual benefits and trust are to be built, Kenya and other countries need to be "in the drivers' seat", that they need to be sure construction contracts contain provisions for local employment, and that industrial policies are the way to address the influx of manufactured goods from Asia.

Anonymous said...

DB, thanks for the comment. I always think if African countries can develop their own regulations for project provisions, local employment quota, safety standards, knowledge transfers, etc, etc, actually in the long run it would be a good thing for Chinese companies and for China herself. It will make more business and economic sense and develop more stable business relationship. I believe Chinese companies still have the competitiveness after those regulations developed, and in turn more people in Chinese companies will be aware of some of their bad practices and improve them in the domestic market. Hope that's not a wishful thinking!


Anonymous said...

Well! ''lap dogs barking'', ''prostituting themselves for food scraps from their masters' table'': these are some gentleman's comments. My answer is that it's better to tell the truth and acknowledge that some Chinese practices need improvements, as Prof. Brautigam herself did, rather than behaving like the monkey of the fable that chose to be dumb, blind and as deaf as a post! We don't need stupid monkeys.

Anonymous said...

I am an American civil engineer with many years experience in road design/construction.

The opinion of this lap dog is roads should be built for their intended function, not built for trucks, and then wash out to be usable only for bicyles and motorcycles.

"heavily used roads built on weak soil have a tendency to crumble "

Only if the roads are poorly designed. Heavy traffic requires a thicker, stronger pavement section. Poor base soils require more than the usual soil improvement (e.g. undercutting or the use of geogrids).

In any case, the washout on this road seems to me to be caused by scour at the tail of a culvert, possibly caused by excessive tailwater velocity resulting from insufficient hydraulic design. I cannot be sure without either visiting the site or seeing the construction drawings

Anonymous said...

Anonymous has just betrayed the fact that he is an American. See? The U.S. and Western Europe have been rubishing every effort China is making to help raise Africa from the depths of western-imposed poverty and underdevelopment. Chike, thanks for your contributions. Africans are helpless and any kind of help is welcome. Shouldn't we be happy that there are, at last, some African leaders who are willing to line their pockets and still deliver important projects? I am from Nigeria where billions of dollars are paid for non-existent projects. So Africans, quit whining about China! We have foreigners taking care of our business because we can't do it ourselves.


Romantic Florida Getaway said...

Is this a one time hit or do Chinese projects have that tendency? If the Anonymous engineer's hypotheses are right then the road would require much more than periodic repairs.

seo service said...

It is not the Chinese company that is at fault. It is the people who signed off the completed project as satisfactory, thereby releasing the money. We should not be so keen to throw stones without facts. This road was subject to a contractual agreement – it would be wise to refer to the obligations under the contract and how such obligations might be enforced in this case before embarking on yet another fruitless dance of keyboard vitriol against Zambians in general and the government in particular.

Unknown said...

corruption in african countries are a big factor , if they made the roads properly it would take too much money out of african politicians pockets , bad mentality to the future will forever be the african problem , only thinking for the day and not next week or next month is also the root of african problems not just in road building but in many aspects of african life , been there seen it for myself

Anonymous said...

Corruption is the cause of such works..If Henan built such a road in China their govt will have their heads..Zambians have allowed rot in the system..As africans we like excuses day in day out while the poor people suffer,it has to end..the world is tired of our sob stories covering their front pages we need to pull up our socks