Africa’s road-building frenzy will transform continent
Expanding and upgrading Africa’s sparse highway network could pull people out of poverty – and pose environmental challenges
AFRICA is embarking on a road-building spree. Ahead of the pack are mining organisations, largely funded by China, which have flooded into the continent over the last decade and need ways to transport materials. But also afoot is a larger, pan-African effort to upgrade and expand the continent’s highway network, as well as building many more smaller connecting roads.
The result will be a vast continental transformation with the potential to improve access to education and healthcare – and connect Africans to each other, enabling commerce. It’s not all good news, however. The roads, especially those built to service mines, could disrupt large tracts of natural habitat. “If you build the roads, there are environmental costs, but if you don’t, there are developmental costs,” says Jeff Sayer of James Cook University in Cairns, Australia.
The need for infrastructural change is undeniable. Compared with the world average, Africa’s existing road network is sparse and poorly maintained. According to a report for the World Bank, average road density on the continent is 204 kilometres of road per 1000 square kilometres of land area – only a quarter of which is paved. In contrast, the world average is 944 kilometres per 1000 square kilometres with more than half paved. This is partly due to Africa’s vast area, but its roads look sparse even when viewed by population (see diagram).
Enter the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa, or PIDA, funded mainly by African governments, plus international banks, governments and funding agencies. It was launched in 2010 and is due for completion in 2040. Transport makes up 30 per cent of the current budget, and roads are a big part of this.
The plan is to expand the existing, 10,000 kilometre-long network of major roads to between 60,000 and 100,000 km – either by upgrading existing poor roads or building new ones. The result would be nine arteries, some hugging Africa’s entire coastline, while others strategically criss-cross the continent. Some 250,000 km of smaller roads will be built or upgraded to connect smaller cities to the main arteries, plus another 70,000 km to plug in rural areas.
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