Taiwan is less than 5% the size of Zambia but has far more usable roads than Zambia. It has a 42,520km road network of which 99% is paved. Compare to 40,454 km of the Zambian Core Road Network (CRN) of which 9,751km is paved (24%). Zambia has 67,671km total gazetted roads plus another about 10,000km unclassified. Paved roads are just under 15% of the total Zambian gazetted road network. 5,114km of roads are impassable with nearly half in Western Province and a quarter in North-Western.
The CRN comprises of 3 classes: Trunk, Main and District (TMD); Urban; Primary and Feeder Roads (PFR). Road data and conditions are as follows:
1. TMD 19,484km: Paved 7,664km (87% good, 7% fair, 6% poor) | Unpaved 10,480km (6% good, 24% fair, 70% poor) | Impassable 1,339km
2. Urban 5,773km: Paved 2,055km (46% good, 19% fair, 35% poor) | Unpaved 3,010km (3% good, 10% fair, 87% poor) | Impassable 708km
3. PFR 15,679km: Paved 32km (91% good, 7% fair, 1% poor) | Unpaved 12,581km (4% good, 14% fair, 82% poor) | Impassable 3,067km
To maintain the roads, an annual minimum of $721 million is needed by RDA but it only gets about 20% due to the pre-occupation with new roads by GRZ. However, a study showed that for every dollar that a country fails to spend on road maintenance, it results in three dollars spent by road users in increased vehicle operating costs as a result of the poor roads. The wasted money in the whole economy is colossal.
Since RDA gets funded only 20% of the required $721 million maintenance money on average, it means that there is a $577 million shortfall. Therefore, the citizens of Zambia collectively end up spending three times this amount (ie $1.7 billion!) regularly buying shock absorbers, springs, ball joints, rack-ends and all manner of suspension parts. There are about 700,000 registered motor vehicles in Zambia (2017 estimate), so the cost of the failure of the Zambian government to fund RDA’s road maintenance program to us the citizens is $2,473 (K24,730) per car per year.
We haven’t even estimated increased fuel costs due to being forced to drive slowly through bad roads in low gears and the lost productivity time due to taking longer to drive through bumps and potholes. Cars getting damaged faster also contributes to road traffic accidents which have their own costs in terms of repairs, insurance pay outs, lost lives, etc. The $2,473 cost per vehicle per year in the case of public transport is obviously passed onto passengers, meaning that they have less money in their pockets. And there is also opportunity cost. What would $1.7 billion in the hands of citizens produce, if it wasn’t wasted? Factoring in all the other hidden costs outlined, the real figure is probably at least twice (ie $3.4 billion) or more.
The longer that road maintenance is delayed, the more costly it becomes to restore the road to good condition. The repair costs can rise to six times maintenance costs after three years of neglect and to eighteen times after five years of neglect. So if a $577 million shortfall is not being given to RDA to maintain roads, it means that in the worst case scenario, roads neglected for five years would cost $10.4 billion to restore them! Imagine that.
A study has shown that in Sub-Saharan Africa, for every kilometer of road rehabilitated, an estimated three kilometers of roads fall into disrepair, leading to a net deterioration in the total road network. The current obsession with building brand new roads at the expense of maintaining old ones will come to haunt this country about 15 years from now. It’s déjà vu because we have seen all this before during the UNIP era.
There was a mad rush to build over-engineered roads for ten years from 1965 to 1975 without a proper maintenance plan, and the end result was pothole littered roads by 1990 such that it was better to get off the road and use the sides instead. I recall being on a bus more than 25 years ago going to Kawambwa from Lusaka. We drove through the Mkushi area and for at least 100km or so, we were not on the tarmac but the gravel by the side.
Bottom line is that to take Zambia to the level of Taiwan is a decades long gargantuan project that is not helped by wrong priorities and poor choices. eg the 74km Mongu-Kalabo road cost $287 million, yet the Barotse flood plains are abandoned for almost half the year as villagers move to higher ground. The traffic is very light.
There is no economic activity there that will repay the cost of the road in the foreseeable future. Spending that same $287 million on something like the Solwezi-Chingola road, Makeni-Mazabuka road with a bridge on Kafue River or even a 140km dual carriageway between Lusaka and Kabwe would have accrued much more economic benefits.
Even just putting the whole amount into maintenance of strategic roads in the North-South corridor would have done more good for Zambia than a road through sand and floodplains with a tiny population and no significant economic activity for many years to come.
Perhaps the discovery of oil or diamonds in Western Province would justify the Mongu-Kalabo road but even then, the mine owners could easily build the road the same way the British South Africa company built roads using private money. The mines could be given a special concession for 30 or 40 years to collect toll fees.
Finally, a road needs to be made tarmac only if traffic exceeds 300 vehicles per hour or if very heavy trucks go through regularly, otherwise a gravel road would suffice. Most of Australia’s roads are gravel (57%), despite it being developed. America has 2.3 million kilometres of gravel roads and 62% of roads in Iceland are not paved.
RDA Road Maintenance Strategy report (2014-2024)
Core Road Network Condition Report 2014
RDA Annual Report 2014
Zambia Transport Portal
CIA World Fact Book
NOTE: Article updated 26th October 2017