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Everybody loves excavators?

By Frank van Steenbergen and Saroj Yakami

September 2018

Excavators: they move where no one moved before. They may even dig their own way forward in unchartered terrain. Their mighty arm removes rocks and rubble. They shake up hills in rural Nepal. They are the mighty instrument for making new roads. Everybody loves them.

The infatuation with excavators is now even more than it ever was. It has grown with the decentralization process set in place in Nepal since two years which has shifted budget discretion from the central government to more than 700 local municipalities, and with this moved road development into local politics. One will find excavators in the most unlikely places, moved there as by a miracle. For a local politician making a new road in the area is a matter of political mileage, of being seen to be doing things, making a road where there was at best a footpath before along the steep slopes. The excavators and their operators are local role models – whereas other kids may dream to be a pilot, kids in Mugu and other rural areas for instance hope one day to operate the earth moving equipment.

Yet for all their local prowess, excavators often do more wrong than good. They move new roads along the wrong alignments – turning the newly opened routes in deep gutted drains. They destroy springs with their brute force. They scratch open steep slopes causing them to slide and unstable. Tip all the spoil from the road excavation down the hills and mountains, creating terrible scars on them – they trigger erosion on the steep slopes that were in a balance for millenia.

What is more, the roads the excavators (-operators) make often do not last long – steep as they are they are impassable and disappear in one or two monsoon seasons. In other words the uncontrolled local road development in Nepal has turned into an environmental disaster with very little benefit.

Here is the postcard from far away Darke Khola at the foot of the Chankheli pass. In this remote rural municipality, an excavator was engaged by the local elected mayor directed to make a new road but arrested by local people who saw no benefit in it, as a main road was planned to be constructed.

What is to be done?

Clearly road development will not go away and if done well it will unlock isolation, create new opportunities to move. But road development requires a demanding minimum standard – It requires that the excavator operators and owners are trained in setting the right alignments, in maintaining proper cut and slopes, in essential environmental practice and taking care of road water interactions. If the latter is not take care off, streams, springs and torrents crossing rural roads will accelerate the downfall of the road.  Not only excavator operators need to be trained - the same needs to be extended to local politicians and field engineers. There is talk of licensing excavator operators and confiscating their licence if they deviate from these rules. One may even confiscate the excavator itself if it is used irresponsibly.

There is also a need for additional approaches – once the excavator has done its work there is a need to provide protection and make breast wall, to clear.  This is to be done manually – as the RAP3 project is doing engaging road building groups with proper protection,  clearing roads, making breast walls and side protection. In the challenging mountain terrain maintenance moreover is as important as construction and the good practice with road maintenance groups that clear rock-fall and plug cuts and potholes needs to be extended. As without this, roads will becomes signs of frustrated access rather than unblocked isolation.



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