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Kabul's Roads, Paved With Good Intentions

Dec 4, 2012
Originally published on December 5, 2012 1:00 am

Sometimes, you don't have to go far to find a story. For the past few months, just stepping outside NPR's Kabul office has been a drama.

The neighborhood is in the midst of a major road and sewer renovation project. It's just one of many such projects that is badly needed in Kabul and elsewhere in the country.

But as is often the case, the pace and quality of the work has been uneven. And residents aren't so sure whether the final product will be worth the months of gridlock, power outages and business interruption.

The street outside of our office is complete dirt. It's rough and uneven, with huge craters and giant piles of boulders and rubble. It's hard to imagine how this could be a planned construction project — and this is one of dozens of streets in the neighborhood where this work has been going on, causing massive disruptions to people, to businesses and to daily life in this area.

The Sufi Restaurant is one of the businesses being affected. The renowned establishment serves traditional Afghan food to everyone from diplomats to development workers.

Bismillah, the restaurant's manager, says business is down about 50 percent compared with last year.

"Foreigners come here and see there is no parking area, so they give up and leave," he says.

Bismillah says he's had to lay off staff.

"We've appealed to many government departments, but no one listens to us," he says.

Part Of A Major Project

Sayed Nezamuddin Wahdat is the head of Kabul's 10th District, where this work is taking place. He says it's part of a citywide project to pave more than 60 miles of roads and renovate the fetid sewage trenches. Wahdat believes the project is going much better than past projects. He estimates 80 percent of the work is "going well."

"Most of the problems are caused by the contractors," he adds.

Wahdat says the city will fine the contractors if they do not complete the work properly and on time — by the end of December.

Yet one of the main contractors, UBCC, says that deadline will not be met. The company says the delays were unavoidable. Control and coordination among the four different contractors has been a problem. Often multiple streets are simultaneously shut down, hence the paralyzing traffic, even by Kabul standards.

To make matters worse, people in the neighborhood say no one from the government or the project has spoken to them about what streets would be torn up and when.

Yama Torabi is director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a nongovernmental transparency and accountability group.

"They have been able to do this main road, which is in front of the attorney general's office, in about a month or even less," Torabi says. "But then why is it that this road is taking four months?"

He says he does think it will be a huge improvement when it's done, and by all accounts, the quality of the work is far better than past paving projects that often crumble after one winter. But Torabi also says this area is only getting renovated because it's a wealthy neighborhood.

"We have a long way ahead of us, because 90 percent of the roads in Kabul are just not paved," he says.

At the rate things are going, many of the streets in our neighborhood aren't going to be paved anytime soon, either.

NPR's Sultan Faizy contributed to this report.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Modernizing an ancient city is no easy task. Take this ongoing example in Afghanistan, where NPR staffers encounter a major drama every time they step outside our Kabul office. The neighborhood is in the midst of a major road and sewer renovation project.

And as NPR's Sean Carberry reports, residents aren't sure whether all the gridlock, power outages and business interruption is worth it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: I'm standing in the middle of the street outside of our house here in Kabul. It is dirt. It is rough, uneven. There are huge craters. There are giant piles of boulders, piles of rubble. It's hard to imagine how this could be a planned construction project. And this is one of dozens of streets in the neighborhood where this work has been going on, causing massive disruptions to people, to businesses and to daily life in this area.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

CARBERRY: One affected business is Sufi Restaurant. The renowned establishment serves traditional Afghan food to everyone from diplomats to development workers. Bismillah is the manager of Sufi.

BISMILLAH: (Through Translator) Compared to the last year, my business is down 50 percent. Foreigners come here and see there is no parking area, so they give up and leave.

CARBERRY: He says he's had to lay off staff.

BISMILLAH: (Through Translator) We've appealed to many government departments, but no one listens to us.

CARBERRY: Sayed Nezamuddin Wahdat is the head of Kabul's 10th District, where this work is taking place. He says this is part of a citywide project to pave 100 kilometers of roads and renovate the fetid sewage trenches. Wahdat believes the project is going much better than past projects.

SAYED NEZAMUDDIN WAHDAT: (Through Translator) Eighty percent is going well. Most of the problems are caused by the contractors.

(Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Wahdat says the city will fine the contractors if they don't complete the work properly and on time, which is the end of December.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

CARBERRY: One of the main contractors, UBCC, says that deadline will not be met. The company says the delays were unavoidable. Control and coordination among the four different contractors has been a problem. Often multiple streets are simultaneously shut down, hence the paralyzing traffic, even by Kabul standards.

To make matters worse, people in the neighborhood say no one from the government or the project has spoken to them about what streets would be torn up and when.

Yama Torabi is director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan.

YAMA TORABI: They have been able to do this main road, which is in front of the attorney general's office, in about a month or even less. But then why is it that this road is taking four months?

CARBERRY: He says he does think it will be a huge improvement when it's done. And by all accounts, the quality of the work is far better than past paving projects that often crumble after one winter. But Torabi also says this area is only getting renovated because it's a wealthy neighborhood.

TORABI: We have a long way ahead of us, because 90 percent of the roads in Kabul are just not paved and expanded.

CARBERRY: At the rate things are going, many of the streets in our neighborhood aren't going to be paved anytime soon, either.

Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.