USAID funds project to keep vital Afghan tunnel open in winter

By Stephen Kaufman, Washington File Staff Writer

Jibresiraj, Afghanistan - Before the opening of the Salang Tunnel in 1964, the road between the Afghan capital Kabul north through the towering Hindu Kush mountains to Mazar-E Sharif was nearly impassible in winter.

Without a rail system, landlocked Afghanistan is dependent on its roads and airports to bring in food, commercial goods, fuel, and other necessities from outside the country. Thus, in the winter months, keeping the 2.6 kilometer-long Salang Tunnel and 68 kilometers of road at its northern and southern approaches cleared of avalanches and open to traffic is a daunting but vital task.

After the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, the tunnel was unusable due to land mines along the route, rubble from battles between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, and general disrepair. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) quickly funded a project by the France-based Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) working with the reestablished Afghan Ministry of Public Works that led to the reopening of the tunnel on January 19, 2002.

To keep the tunnel open for the winter of 2002-2003, USAID provided ACTED and the Afghan Ministry of Public Works with $1.6 million to clear snow, make emergency repairs and manage the tunnel traffic.

"Through the winter, it's 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Canadian Chris McGeough, ACTED's project manager for Salang. "It's a non-stop process right from December through April. You're plowing the roads continuously all the time to break the ice."

Of ACTED's 130 person staff, all but five are Afghans. Canadian, French and British technicians teach the Afghan staff to run the snowplows and other equipment. They work together with 120 employees from the Ministry of Public Works.

The route north from Jibresiraj is littered with the wreckage of Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers. A shrine marks the spot where a nearby villager threw himself under the wheel of a bus to provide enough traction to keep it from plunging with its passengers over the side of the hill -- a testament not only to his sacrifice but also to the dangers confronting passengers through the Salang Pass.

Between 700 and 1000 vehicles traverse the tunnel daily on average. The tunnel not only serves as the capital's main link with its provinces in the north and neighboring Tajikistan but also enables Afghan truck drivers to earn their living.

"When the tunnel is closed, it's a total loss for me," said Nizammudin, who brings merchandise from Herat in western Afghanistan across the country then northward to the provinces of Mazar-E Sharif, Shibirghan, and Takhar. "I am stuck here. I have to pay for everything, while not making any money. When the tunnel is closed, my life stops. I have no other source of income."

Nizamuddin was temporarily stranded at Jibresiraj because the tunnel had been closed due to avalanche fears following a significant snow accumulation earlier in the week. "In the last 72 hours we've had 23 avalanches," explained ACTED's McGeough.

Muhammed Nasim, a driver in the fleet of fuel tank trucks that supply at least 70 percent of Kabul's gasoline, uses the tunnel an average of four times per month. "All my life is tied to this tunnel," he said. "There is absolutely no profit for me when the tunnel is closed."

The southern end of the tunnel is particularly dangerous, because of a mountain spring that spreads layers of ice over the entrance, and because of the destruction of an avalanche protection gallery in the 2001 fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

Stephane Nicholas, a French citizen who serves as ACTED's Country Director in Afghanistan, said two truck drivers have been killed by avalanches so far this season. In their efforts to prevent fatalities, the tunnel is closed while the staff detonate explosives, sometimes from helicopters, to trigger avalanches and remove snow from vulnerable areas. One ACTED employee was killed in 2002 during an avalanche control operation.

After the tunnel is reopened, the workers position themselves at different points along the 70 kilomter route to regulate the movement of cars, buses and trucks on the narrow road.

"It's awful in the sense that it's very dangerous. Suddenly you slip on the ice. When you see the truck slipping on the ice, you get scared. You can get crushed like this! So that is why we have this traffic control," said Nicholas.

Communicating by radio, tunnel workers ensure that if one car gets stuck and blocks the route, within minutes, other traffic can be halted before vehicles get trapped in the dark tunnel and drivers and passengers are forced to breathe harmful diesel fumes which accumulate as a result of poor ventilation.

In February 2002, before ACTED was able to fully implement its traffic management system, approximately 700 people were stranded along the pass. "They'd been sitting in their cars for five days," recounted McGeough, and many were suffering from hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Traveling by snowmobiles, relief workers and ministry employees supplied those trapped with water and food until the tunnel was reopened three days later.

After little more than one year of operation, the effectiveness of the USAID funded project is noted by some of the drivers.

"Last year, once in a while, it was open. This year they are trying very hard to keep it open steadily," said Muhammed Nasim. "My lifeline is just this truck. I have no other income."

"If the tunnel is open, and the road is good, my income will go higher and the whole world will be happy. Then I will have no headache," said fellow driver Nizamuddin.

A Turkish company has been contracted to begin resurfacing the tunnel road in spring 2003. It will also replace the ventilation system and repair overhanging structures.

"In the long term, they're looking to build the whole [Salang] pass," said McGeough. "[T]hat means rebuilding every road, every avalanche gallery, every bridge, the tunnel, and 70 km of road."

The USAID-funded traffic control system and heavy equipment will be turned over to the Afghan Ministry of Public Works in April 2003. Said ACTED's Stephane Nicholas, " We are trying to make some capacity building with them. Some of the equipment will be left to them, so in the years to come they will do it themselves."

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