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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

AFGHANISTAN: Key humanitarian route closes for upgrading

SALANG, 16 July 2003 (IRIN) - The principal humanitarian route linking the capital Kabul and northern Afghanistan will be closed for three months for badly-needed reconstruction work ahead of the winter, a government official has told IRIN.

The Salang tunnel - about 180 km north of Kabul - is the main access route from the capital and the only all-weather direct route between the north and south of the country. It was used extensively by aid convoys from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and played an important role in keeping central parts of the country fed, since it was reopened last year following war damage and neglect.

According to General Mohammad Rajab, the chief of the Kabul-Salang highway protection and maintenance department, more than 1,500 vehicles, including aid convoys carrying food and other essential commodities, pass through the tunnel daily.

"We had many incidents, including casualties, because of a lack of essential maintenance in the tunnel and on the roads approaching it," Rajab told IRIN in the Salang district of the northeastern Parvan Province.

Temporary closure of the tunnel will also have an impact on commerce and the transporation of food to northern provinces and to the capital. "We have to accept two to three months hardships and problems to reduce any future risks once the tunnel is fully repaired," Mohammad Yaqoob Shaghasy, deputy minister for public works, said. During the tunnel closure, the much longer old route through Darreh-ye Shekari in the central highlands would have to be used, the authorities say.

The rehabilitation work is a US $5 million project and part of a larger $108 million World Bank emergency transport rehabilitation programme, which covers reconstruction of the main road from the capital Kabul, to northern cities.

"The tunnel repair work is undertaken by a Turkish company and will be fully rehabilitated to its first high standard by mid-November; however, the rehabilitation of roads still needs to be contracted to other international companies," Shaghasy said.

Built by Soviet engineers and opened in 1964, the 2.7 km-long Salang tunnel and adjoining road system provided the first direct year-round link between Afghanistan's northern and southern regions, which are bisected by the Hindu Kush mountain range. Earlier, goods being transported from the north to Kabul via the western city of Herat had taken about 72 hours to reach their destination. With the opening of the Salang tunnel, that journey was reduced to less than 10 hours.

Following extensive bombing and deterioration in the road system leading up to it, the tunnel was closed in mid 1990s - effectively isolating each of the two halves of the country. It reopened in February 2002, when the ministry of public works, with the assistance of international orgnisations, cleared the tunnel of mines and rubble and partially restored ventilation and lighting systems.

According to the ministry of public works, the alternative temporary route adds more than 200 km to the length of any north-south journey. "The Shekari dirt roads are narrow, with some destroyed bridges on the way, but it is safe as a temporary route for light and heavy vehicles," Shaghasy said, adding that they would finish the rehabilitation work before bad weather and snow closed the Shekari route for the winter.

However, he said work on the entire road system would take longer. "The complete rehabilitation of the highway will be completed by the end of 2004," he said.

Themes: (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) Health & Nutrition, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs



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