YAKAWLANG, 29 January (IRIN) - Several hundred men with shovels will make the life of a 22-year-old Afghan shopkeeper and hundreds like him a lot easier this year. Every winter the village of Yakawlang in the central highlands of Afghanistan is cut off for several months by snow blocking passes where the road climbs to over 3,500 m.
But thanks to international initiatives, the roads in this part of the country will be cleared and remain open throughout winter for the first time in memory. "It will make such a difference - sometimes the road would be closed for three months and we could not get food or supplies until it went away," Jamshid, a shopkeeper, told IRIN in Yakawlang.
It is not uncommon to see roads blocked by snow several metres high in this region. The drive from Bamian to Yakawlang is treacherous at the best of times during the long winter, with the road covered in sheets of ice and snow. Even with chains strapped to tyres for additional grip, vehicles can often be seen sliding off the road.
But now help is at hand. Coordinated by the United Nations Joint Logistics Committee (UNJLC), the winter roads programme will see the UN and NGOs work to keep remote routes open, which is vital to the reconstruction process and delivery of humanitarian aid.
"Basically, we've gone out to communities and contracted local people in villages along routes. It varies from US $1 to US $2 a day. So far, we've contracted about 2,000 throughout the country, but we will be likely to contract 3,000 overall," the head of UNJLC, Terri Toyota, told IRIN in the capital, Kabul.
Toyota added that the scheme operated primarily in the central highlands and the west and that there are a couple of teams " probably a few hundred people in the northwest " around Feyzabad and Badakhshan.
In Bamian, Guillaume Limal, the regional coordinator for the French NGO Solidarites, told IRIN his team had five high passes to keep clear. It will employ hundreds of local men on a cash-for food or -work basis, each man receiving either $2 or 14 kg of wheat for a day's work. "Keeping the roads open will be a huge benefit for medical emergencies, commerce, trade and transport, and it also helps reconstruction," Limal said.
"This programme is significant, because, psychologically, it is very important to know that your country does not close down from three to six months of the year. One sign of stability and security is that it stays accessible and stays part of the marketplace throughout the whole year," Toyota said.
The Solidarites team is also marking the route with coloured poles so drivers do not stray into the minefields which the roads often run through. But when the snow has gone, the massive job of reconstructing Afghanistan's roads will still remain.
Afghan Deputy Transport Minister Abdul Hadi Mohseni maintained that all 20,000 km of Afghanistan's roads could be classified as destroyed after two decades of war and neglect. "All over the world, transport is the most important thing. It is like the blood in your veins. If it stops you will die. And if transport stops there will be chaos," Mohseni told IRIN in Kabul.
While the major highways, such as the Kabul-Kandahar-Herat route, will be reconstructed over the next two years with $180 million from the United States, Japan and Saudi Arabia, Mohseni was also keen to see the minor roads asphalted. However, this would require further international aid and maybe tolls in the future. "We need foreign help for financial and engineering work - building the roads we can do ourselves. The people of Afghanistan are very hard-working and will volunteer for the reconstruction of roads."
Mohseni said he hoped one day to be able to make the 500-km trip from Kabul to Kandahar, where he went to university, in less than five hours. At present, the bone-shaking, suspension-wrecking journey can take up to 15 hours due to the state of the road.
In the provinces, many smaller roads have already been reconstructed using local labour. Mercy Corps' representative in Afghanistan, Anita Anastacio, told IRIN it had to be involved in a number of road rehabilitation projects, because local communities kept telling them these were priorities.
"It connects communities and opens up markets for trade, and has provided jobs for communities at a time when they were trying to get back on their feet," Anastacio said, adding that poor roads and transport added to the prices of goods at a time when many people were struggling to afford basics.
The Mercy Corps programme manager, Jorg Denker, said the organisation kept things as local as possible, doing things such as contracting local donkey owners rather than the truck companies so that many needy local people could benefit from the work.
Thanks to one of its projects, the trip between Taloqan and Eshkamesh in the northeast, which used to take five hours, had now been halved. "In an emergency, two hours can save a life," Denker told IRIN in Kabul.
But for Jamshid and the residents of the remote central region normally cut off from the rest of Afghanistan by snow, the work on the roads will be a life-saver of another kind. Instead of living in isolation, they will be able to carry on their businesses, which is a giant step forward on the road to returning to normalcy.
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