Friday, May 17, 2019

Bhutan’s Killer Highways

In 2011, somewhere below Nobding in Wangdue, I don’t want to remember, my car was hit by falling boulders but I survived to tell the story because a chunk of rock that sliced though my windshield landed near my right foot without hitting any part of my body. I still wonder how that was possible. I still feel grateful. ( I could never sue anyone for it)
Haunting Memories from 2011
Since that fateful night, I have become a little paranoid about travelling alone, travelling in the rain, travelling across deadly slopes and the charm of travelling is replaced by by fear of being crushed by huge boulders and buried under mudslide.

Famous- Reautala on the way to Zhemgang from Trongsa
Over the years, roads became wider but safety didn’t chance much. In fact with bigger roads bigger damages were inflicted on the slopes and we are seeing deadlier landslides. Every highway has a leading landslide spot and a few supporting ones that are crippling the traffic every monsoon and claiming precious lives.

We have seen several deadly accidents with multiple casualties, the recent bus accident at Basochu being one of the worsts, which should have served as harsh wakeup call for us to relook at the way we build roads. But looking at the way Damchu-Chhukha bypass was built we seemed to have learnt nothing substantial. This road though done so recently using all the modern machineries and high-tech equipments doesn’t look any different from the ones our grandparents built using crowbar. The short span has at least four death traps that will gradually become slaughter houses.

One of the four deadly stretches on Damchu-Chhukha bypass
With all the impending landslide, no accidents shall be unexpected. It’s simple physics to understand that the rocks that are held loosely on the slope will come rumbling down due to gravity. And that road being the busiest, we are only to count the number of dead bodies over the year. I can already see prayer flags being offered at two spots on that stretch where the accidents have occurred, and lives lost. If nothing is done, we shall run out of space to offer prayer flags.

Strangely, in the so many deaths due to road accidents I have seen drivers being blamed and charged, but never have I heard of a case where road contractor or official being taken to court for murder. Yes, it should amount to murder. When talking about road safety we always point at speed limit, drunk driving, etc. but never about the condition of the road. Drivers are fined for violating road safety rules and endangering their own lives and lives of other, but did road safety officials ever charge road contractors for endangering public safety due to their negligence and their incompetence?

Building road along the mountain must be a big feat but it comes with a huge price tag, and when one is paid the price for a job it’s their responsibility to ensure the road is built and that all related damages are rectified and that there won’t be landslide from above or below the road. Sadly, we can see how this is grossly neglected, perhaps it’s not even in the mandate. I don’t like to believe this, but I heard that some loose ends are intentionally left to ensure that there are repeated slides and road blocks so that the contractor or organisation can have excuses to have more works. Such a bad logic.

Whereas, at Chhuzomsa in Wangdue, a Japanese company has done a marvellous bridge and on the two ends of the bridge they have solidified the entire hill using pressurised concrete, so that there will never be any sort of landslide or shooting boulders. That’s the level of professionalism in the way Japanese work; they leave no loose ends, the only thing they leave behind is legacy of outstanding quality. Unfortunately, they are not building our roads.

Japanese Legacy at Chhuzomsa in Wangdue. Look at those hills!
The method Japanese used to seal the loose rocks into solid concrete to prevent landslide is called shotcrete. This method, which is extensively used in hydropower projects, can help make lot of our landslide prone areas safe. I have seen it used in Tala Project and now in Punatshangchu projects, but I haven’t seen it used outside the hydropower box. Except by Japanese. Why is it not used in making our roads safe?
Shotcrete
Another method I have seen being using in hydropower projects is rock-bolt, where a long anchor is used to bolt the loose exterior rock onto the solid interior rock mass. This will ensure that all those creepily hanging rock you see on our highway will not come down on us. But that’s only if we are willing to invest in safety.

Rock Bolt
During many of my meditative driving modes, when my wife’s lost in her own thoughts and when I am driving across scary slopes I thought of many way to prevent landslides and shooting boulders. In fact, in my head, I use shotcrete, rock bolts and even build RCC walks and then contemplate massive landslides. But even in my imaginative simulations walls don’t stand a chance against the force of nature. There is no way humans and our technology can stop the forces of nature when it’s on the move, but that doesn’t mean we can't divert it. Any powerful force can far easily be diverted than stopped.

Tunnel roads
That’s exactly what’s going wrong with the way we are managing our landslide prone roads; we try to stop slides by building walls and therefore the massive force of the slide then takes along the entire road itself. The best solution to that is hiding the road from the path of the slide using tunnel or half-tunnel technology

Half-tunnel, about which I read many years ago, could be our best chance at making our deadly roads safe for driving across in any season. Half tunnel will hide the road and all properties, including us in the artificial cave and whatever falls from above, no matter how powerful, will just fly over our head. This is what I mean by diverting the force of nature and not trying to stop it. It could be expensive to built but when it’s done the amount of recurring cost, lives and property it will save on top of preserving the condition of the road for sustained period of time will make the huge investment all the worth. 

Half-Tunnel


Otherwise, how can we stop a force like this: On Trongsa-Zhemgang highway
Talking about the huge cost of adopting the solutions I mentioned, I am reminded of an analogy someone shared with me (there must be a name for it as well); A poor man goes to a shop and buys a pair of Nu.400 shoes, while a rich man buys a pair of Nu.3000 shoes. The poor man’s shoe wears out in four months and he buys another pair. Every four months he has to buy a new pair. The rich man’s pair of shoes last for good five years, while within that period of time the poor man has to buy 15 pairs of the cheap brand, costing him Nu.6,000. Poor man who was trying to save money lands up paying double the price at the end.

Same happens with us as a so-called-poor country. We think we are poor country and go for the cheapest way out, but at the end the recurring maintenance cost will be far greater than if had invested in the best. We may be a poor country but we have to carry a rich country mentality. 

8 comments:

  1. i wish our government/agencies/contractors could implement the ideas and technologies which u have exhibited out here. It could certainly save thousands of lives.

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  3. This same concerns were put forward into RSTA while giving refreshel course BUT they are saying this responsibities is not related with RSTA, mentioning other organizations.

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  4. nicely presented with solution..kudos🖒🖒🖒

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  5. 1. The cliff at Damchuu bypass from Chukha side was favorable for tunneling. The construction time would have been also faster. Soil nailing and shotcreting over those loose soil would prevent the slides.

    2. Half tunneling could have been done in Gyelposhing-Nganglam highway. The road has been cut from huge height making it vulnerable to falling boulders. Even for the conventional road construction, the technology used over there had been wrong. In order to excavate in large volume, the constructors had used bigger diameter of drill rods (89mm or more) which led usage of higher powder factor (more explosives). This has left many surrounding rock cracked from blast. Use of correct equipment and construction methodology, close monitoring by the client is essential which is missed in this highway.

    3. The road at Wangdigang (Trongsa-Gelephu bypass) is another example where better construction methodology could have been used.

    4. Dzongkhalumpa at Trongsa is another example where cutting has been made unnecessarily. Half tunneling was perfect in this stretch.

    5. Most of the road construction is done without conducting proper geotechnical studies. It would be interesting if such studies are done in Reotala and other similar stretches where it is prone to annual landslides.

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  6. I think government should apply same strategy like foreign country and govt should upgrade some technology so that the condition of road can be improve and save many lives of people.

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  7. I think this is an informative post and it is very useful and knowledgeable. therefore, I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article.
    Road safety system

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