Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Afghanistan: Key Helmand Bridge at Risk
A major bridge spanning the Helmand River in southern Afghanistan is disintegrating under the weight of traffic, and local residents fear that if it collapses they will effectively be cut off from markets in the rest of the country.
The 180-metre bridge dates from 1956, when it formed part of a major American investment in developing the Helmand river basin.
Located in the provincial centre Lashkar Gah, it connects the town with villages on the other side of the river, and is also a conduit for long-distance traffic.
Around 2,000 vehicles cars and trucks cross the two-lane bridge every day, and the passengers are alarmed to feel the structure moving under them.
The supporting pillars are subsiding, the cement has degraded and crumbled away to show the iron reinforcements within, and rainwater collects in pools on the surface rather than draining off.
“The bridge’s life has run out. When vehicles go over, it starts shaking. You think it might collapse at any moment. Every time, we hold our breath until we’re over the bridge,” a black-turbanned driver from Marja said after saying a prayer in preparation for crossing.
Pedestrians, too, take their lives in their hands as the fencing on either side is damaged.
Agricultural produce from farms and villages scattered on the western side of the river is transported over the bridge to reach markets in central and eastern Afghanistan. There are other bridges, but none conveniently close, so the one at Lashkar Gah is a heavily-used bottleneck.
“We worry that that if the bridge does fall down, six districts will be cut off from the centre [Lashkar Gah], quite apart from any human casualties,” the driver from Marja said. “As long as the current government and officials are in power, God alone knows whether the bridge will be rebuilt.”
A member of Helmand’s provincial council, Hajji Ali Ahmad, said people were constantly raising concerns about safety on the bridge.
“We’ve shared these concerns with the minister for rural rehabilitation and development and have asked him to build another bridge alongside the existing one. He has promised to do that, but at the moment we have no positive news for the people of Helmand,” he said.
Apart from its economic value, the bridge is regularly used by the security forces, he said, adding, “If the bridge falls down, several [kinds of] connections will be severed and broken.”
Officials in Helmand acknowledge the bridge is at risk, and blame its age and the high volume of heavy goods vehicles.
“The bridge was designed to take a weight of 25 tons weight [at a time], but at the moment it’s carrying up to 50 tons,” Abdul Qader Nusrat, head of public works for the province, said. “In the past, there weren’t so many vehicles crossing the bridge, but now 2,000 go over it every day. So it is a matter of concern.”
Nusrat pointed out that because the bridge played such a strategically important economic role, it deserved attention from central government.
“I’ve sent proposals to Kabul on several occasion, and I raise the issue at every development-related meeting, but no one has done anything about it so far,” he said.
Traffic police say they have tried in vain to regulate the numbers of heavy vehicles on the bridge at any one time.
“We have told drivers many times not to have two or three loaded vehicles on the bridge at the same time, but they ignore our advice, and five or six will cross simultaneously,” provincial traffic department chief Abdul Rahman Azizi said.
Despite such concerns, the Helmand governor’s spokesman Mohammad Daud Ahmadi said there were no immediate safety fears.
“We’ve spoken to our engineering team and they have assured us that the bridge doesn’t have any specific problems. Vehicle numbers have nevertheless increased of late, which is why the bridge is shaking,” he said.
Ahmadi said local officials were in touch with central government to plan a second, parallel bridge.
Helmand residents who use the bridge on a daily basis are not comforted by such assurances.
“The officials are busy enjoying themselves, and they don’t care about the people,” Gol Mohammad, who drives a truck bringing in farm produce to Lashkar Gah, said. “The bridge is not to be trusted, I tell you. If it falls down, people in Helmand will have to go begging.”
Gol Mohammad said his favoured method of getting across the bridge was to wait for a lull in the traffic and then drive over as fast as he could.
A 70-year old farmer from Marja recalled a time in the 1950s before the bridge existed.
“I can remember how life was very bad for people in Helmand when there was no bridge. Once it was built, life changed greatly,” he said. “I must stress that this bridge must be protected as a symbol of good luck for us.”
Gol Ahmad Ehsan is a freelance reporter in Helmand province.
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