On 21 March 2008, due to my transfer to work in Europe, I ceased to be the Task Team Leader (TTL) for the Jiangxi III Highway Project (JHP3). This is mainly an expressway located in the south of Jiangxi province which I have worked on from its conception. With construction in progress for just over one year, it is well under way. The new TTL was Fei Deng and we were joined by our highway engineer Jean-Marie Braun as well our resettlement specialist Liu Zhefu.
We flew down from Beijing Sunday night and stayed in Ganzhou, near the start of the JHP3 expressway. Our plan was to do several days of ‘supervision’ wherein we reviewed the progress on all aspects of the project, including extended field visits, as well as do the formal handover. Fei made it clear that the handover would happen on Friday at the ‘wrap-up meeting’ so I was in charge. I was grateful to have the opportunity not only to visit the road, but to catch up with our excellent counterpart from the Jiangxi Provincial Communications Department (JPCD). I also appreciated the opportunity to spent a few days with Fei and bring her up to speed with many aspects of the project which were not documented, and to give her the background to some of the decisions that were made.
Before our arrival there had been storms so the subgrade works on the road were a muddy mess. This also made it difficult to get to some parts of the project. At the start we celebrated Fei’s arrival-and the mud-with the photo below. Mr. Wu Kehai on the left is in charge of the project for the JPCD.
We then took to the road and travelled the length, looking at all aspects of the project. It’s a grand engineering feat, and the photos below give a sampling of it.
In spite of the very poor weather that China had recently had, they had made great progress with the project. Overall they were at some 50% of the progress, although some tunnels were greatly delayed due to the difficult rock conditions. On one side of the mountain it was soft coal like rock which was so unstable they could only manage 1 metre per day of tunneling; on the other side they were doing 7 metres a day with very hard rock. Fortunately, they would soon be through the soft rock and be able to pick up the pace.
One of the things that the World Bank gets a lot of criticism over is the fact that we resettle people to build our roads. In a country like China resettlement is a major issue, as the data from the table below shows.
|Number of people affected by land acquisition and resettlement||10,611|
|Number of households relocated||1,732|
|Houses demolished (square metres)||315,987|
|Total land acquired (ha)||1,042|
|Farmland included in total (ha)||356|
The first reaction is that this is terrible, but that doesn’t take into account the fact that for many of the people this is a great opportunity to improve their livelihood. Most of the people affected by the project are farmers who live in traditional earth-wood houses, an example of which is to the left. These often do not have modern services, and many lack windows. They are cold, draughty and dirty.
Resettlement offers them the opportunity to move into more modern premises. These are multi-story, brick and concrete buildings with water and power. Since the average income in rural areas is on the order of US$600 a year, they could never afford to have such a major improvement in their living conditions. On one of my other projects we did a survey of those resettled after the project and found that 71% of the people had an improved standard of living, and 16% were unchanged. Yes, some 13% considered themselves worse off, but that should not detract from the project’s achievements.
We had a graphic reminder of the opportunities of resettlement when a farmer came over and chatted with Fei. He was asking whether the road could be moved another 10 metres so that he could be resettled!
The mission was relatively uneventful as Mr. Wu and the JPCD were doing a fine job of managing the project. It is interesting to contrast the clients in China with those in, say, Africa. In China if one writes to a client about an issue there is often a response within a day; in Africa the same can take a month. There is good reason why the Chinese have achieved so much …
An area where I paid particular attention to was tunnel air quality. On a previous mission I was seriously concerned about the air quality, or to be more precise, the lack thereof. While tunnels have large fans at the opening which pump air into the tunnel (see the photo below), they are often inadequate or turned off to save money (they cost some US$100/day to operate). Mr Wu agreed to get some air quality monitoring equipment and I was pleased to see that this was done. The monitoring engineer was able to show me the CO and O2 levels taken twice a day, and they were almost always within the limit.
One problem with being a TTL is that one becomes a skeptic, especially when standing in a tunnel where I can hardly breathe and yet the records show almost 100% compliance with air quality requirements. So I asked to borrow the tester and I turned it on. Immediately the alarm went off since the CO level was 0.42-0.50 g/mL against a limit of 0.30 (and a requirement that it be no more than 0.10 over a 1 hour period).
This requirement creates an interesting philosophical question. Over 50% of men in China smoke, and I suspect that among construction workers it is much higher. One of my JPCD colleagues, Mr. Chen, is a smoker and he demonstrated the instrument by blowing cigarette smoke in: 3.00 g/mL! So if they are willing to inflict ten times the maximum level on themselves, why worry about the air quality? Probably for the 5% who don’t smoke. But I digress ..
I ended up having a long discussion with the environmental supervision team to understand more about how they were – or were not – supervising the project. Suffice to say that they fell short of the mark. The engineer was new, and the client had not been informed that the previous one had retired, had no training, and did not even know the environmental requirements he was supposed to be monitoring. Mr. Wu promised to sort it out – and I’m confident that there will be some strong actions taken.
We visited at least some of each contract on the project and got a good overview of the progress. With some 110 km of road as the crow flies, but we couldn’t go straight along it because it was still incomplete, we spent some three days doing the field trip so by the end of it we were tired, but happy with what we saw.
Returning to Ganzhou Jean-Marie went off to look at a local road construction project, while Fei and I dealt with our HIV/AIDS education program as well as some technical studies that were being done as part of the project. The HIV/AIDS team had done excellent work and I suggested to Fei that we prepare a short note advertising their achievements.
As the week drew to an end I appreciated the opportunity for a final visit to the project site, and the time spent with colleagues. We had banquets most evenings and so I felt overfed, but I am used to that since in Jiangxi they are superlative hosts. We said our goodbyes and they invited me – with Lis – to visit them any time in the future, and I invited them to dinner at my house the next time they are in D.C.
With Fei, Jean-Marie and Zhefu continuing on the project it is in good hands and I’m confident they will maintain our good relationship with the JPCD and have a very successful project.