Disasters And Road Safety

Gokul Pokhrel

The three-month monsoon season is just half-way and more unforeseen calamities are yet to follow. Even during the pre-monsoon season of the three months, a total of 455 persons are stated to have lost their lives in various natural disasters like floods, lightning and other unspecified natural calamities. According to the report released by National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC) last week, as many as 274 persons died of drowning in floods, rivers and ponds. The less gullible thunderbolt killed 40 peoples, mostly those caught unaware while working in the open fields. Through NEOC, the federal government has provided a sum of 100,000 to the families of each deceased person as consolation.

Obstruction
During the current monsoon season, accidental disasters such as water-logging of low lying areas, mostly in the southern plains, landslides in hills and mountainous regions have become a recurrent feature obstructing roads and highways. In fact, large-scale destruction of lives and property has become a regular phenomenon of every year with the onset of monsoon season. While it is debatable if the lump-sum grant is adequate to compensate the loss, it demonstrates that the government takes into full cognizance of the destruction and damages caused by natural disasters every year and its preparedness to extend a helping hand to the poor and needy.
The second category of disasters is caused by landslides, soil erosion and inundation by flooded rivers that take a heavy toll of lives and property. Memories are still fresh when a whole hill swept downhill at Jure in Sindhupalchowk district four years ago killing 250 people and blocking the course of Bhotekoshi river. The disaster swept away the popular road link with Tibet region of China, entirely making it unusable and deserted. Government of Nepal is finding very hard to restrain popular enthusiasm for motorable links to their towns and village centres, well beyond the district headquarters. The public enthusiasm for road connectivity has largely overlooked the mandatory requirements of design and engineering and durability of the structures so laboriously constructed with public funds.
Subsequently, if there has been any tangible development over the last 50 years, it is more manifest in the development of motorable roads and tracks. The East-West Highway, the Mid-central Hill Highway and Hulaki Raj Marga linking the southernmost border areas are significant. It is said, with the exception of two district centres all the hills and mountain districts centers have been linked by motorable roads. With the exception of two border heads on the northern frontier with China, a total of six border points with Tibet has now linked by road. Besides, federal government prioritised road projects, the provincial, district and local bodies have also contributed large chunk of funds to expand roads access to remote areas.
But such a free-for-all roads expansion has also increased the hazards of landslides, inundation by swelling rivers during rainy season and water-logging in low lying areas. Lately, there are instances when a large block of hill/mountain slides down blocking not only the motorway but also burying the human settlements nearby. While the loss of lives and property from these emerging rock patterns are enormous, we have no easy answers to stave them off except rebuilding them at substantial costs. The alternative is to improve our engineering capabilities to world class level, better knowledge of rock patterns, and installation of pre-warning systems.
Equally alarming is the issue of massive casualties caused by accidents on highways the number of which exceeds far more than that of natural disasters. It seems, except making head counts and providing meagre relief to the victims’ families, the government has yet to develop a comprehensive Highways Safety and Management system. Nepal’s highways and roads are rated as one of the most unsafe and dangerous in the world. We have the highest number of accidents and the casualties run into thousands.
Under a federal model, roads development and management are handled by all the tiers of government depending on the location of the areas. Manifestly, management of national highways and their safety should be the responsibility of the federal government. If so, the government should give top priority to not only roads extension but improve their safety standards. Start can be made by forming a high level federal transport management authority responsible for devising improved methods and standards of highway safety, improvements and management comparable with regional standards.
The suggested Federal Transport Management Authority, headed by a federal minister, should be constituted to oversee the complex and multiple tasks of highways management, improved standards of roads safety and environmental response mechanism. The Authority is suggested to undertake the standardisation of national and regional highways and their gradation based on roadworthiness, safety and logistic support and ensure medical support and care facilities at major points, vehicle repair and maintenance points at important destinations, arrangement of ambulance services at basic health care service centres, closure of night services on the narrow mountain roads.
Likewise, it calls for certifying the safety and service worthiness of road on the basis of geological study of rock patterns and commensurate engineering support, encouraging tree plantations as a mandatory directive that helps preserve the top soil from erosion and preventing the operation of all the environmentally unfriendly activities such as stone crusher factories, stone mining and sand quarrying near highways and roads to a safe distance.
The government should encourage the construction of durable road links based on sound geological studies rather than encouraging the construction of poorly equipped roads in unstable rock conditions. Nepal is way behind in the field of human resource development as may be required to support a vastly expanding highways and roads network. The government should establish a well modernised transportation training institute responsible for production of higher grade engineers, mechanics and craftsmen.

Durability
It is desirable that the federal government undertake a detailed study of various grades of roads so far constructed on the basis of their viability, the geology of the surface and long-term durability. In this process, the present practice of digging mud roads on the basis of public enthusiasm as against technical viability; should be discouraged so that drain on scarce resources on unaffordable transport networks is prevented on time. With timely precaution and improved management strategies, let our roads be safer and enjoyable for travel, instead of scary nightmare each time.


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