Maintaining the roads to prosperity

Three years ago, the road to the seaside town of Vatomandry was like most in Madagascar: punishing to impassable. Now, resorts, shops, stalls and vendors crowd the edges of the smooth asphalt strip that passes through the town, around 200 km east of the capital, Antananarivo.

When Madagascar gained independence from France in 1960, it had 35,000 km of useable roads, but this has dwindled to just 15,000 km. In 2002 the new government pledged to make road restoration a priority.

With almost half the original network lost, efforts have been focused on rehabilitating national roads linking Antananarivo to provincial capitals, and some key intra-provincial routes.

"I'm convinced that roads are necessary to eradicate poverty, but it's incredibly difficult to measure that impact. We have indicators - reduced cost of transport, numbers of kilometres rehabilitated - but I can't directly demonstrate the impact on poverty," said René Bosman, head of the European Union's roads project in Madagascar.

The EU is the biggest donor in terms of road construction and maintenance, and will have spent US $371.8 million by next year on upgrading the network.

The World Bank and the African Development Bank have also contributed several hundred million dollars towards restoring roads, but development partners say this is still not enough money to maintain the huge network on the world's fourth largest island.

As a result, many provincial roads and most rural tracks continue to erode in Madagascar, where more than 70 percent of the population lives in villages.

Three years ago, the 200 km stretch of road from Toamasina, Madagascar's chief port, to Vatomandry took nearly two days to cover in the dry season, and was completely impassable for almost five months of the year. Now it takes only four hours. Vatomandry has also become Antananarivo's closest seaside resort, and a hub of economic activity.

"Because of the road I started this business," said Lyn, a dried fish and orange vendor. "The important thing is to make some money, even though it's not a lot."

National chain stores have opened branches, while investors from Antananarivo and Toamasina have established other businesses - hotels and restaurants in particular - providing employment opportunities.

There has been a mixed reaction to the new road network: some residents complained that the town's development into a resort was making food and housing unaffordable; others said cheaper transport had helped reduce the prices of essentials. But everyone acknowledged the impact on local business and other positive effects. "The number of children in school also has increased. Children from rural areas are now able to join," a secondary school teacher, Erisoa, told IRIN.

In the neighbouring fishing village of Maintinandry, eight kilometres south of Vatomandry, time has stood still after it was bypassed. "Before the road, this village was developing. Now this place has been forgotten," said Rommauld, a local fisherman.

Indeed, the world looked very different down the potholed mud track leading to Maintinandry, where simple thatch huts stood along the verges and the occasional person collected wood or herded animals.

Linking the Madagascar's far corners and maintenance remain a challenge. "The bottleneck today is maintenance," said Bosman from the EU. Development partners have emphasised the need for an effective strategy to keep the country's thousands of kilometres of dirt roads in shape.

The EU supports a national capacity-building project for maintenance, and NGOs such as CARE and Lalana provide village communities with training and resources to look after the rural road network.

The National Fund for Road Maintenance (FER), derived from a fuel tax and a toll system that has yet to be fully instituted, is the primary sustainable source of income for the purpose. However, since its creation in 1999, FER has been unable to generate even half the money required every year.

Bosman pointed out that rising fuel prices and inflation had also affected roadwork in the past two years. Forced to prioritise, the government has directed all FER funds to maintaining national and some provincial roads.

"The Ministry of Public Works has said that the communal [rural] roads are the responsibility of the communes, but the communities don't even know that they are responsible," said Vero Razafintsalama, president of Lalana. "So, finally, who is responsible? One thing that's sure is that we lack the capacity to handle the communal roads."

The ministry was unavailable for comment.