Roads and The Environment: The Yichang-Badong (Yiba) Expressway

My last project in China before transferring the Europe and Central Asia in 2008 was the Yichang-Badong (Yiba) expressway. This was a US$ 2.2 billion expressway through some very challenging terrain, including the ‘Three Gorges National Park’.  The following key statistics summarize why it was so special:

  • 172 km of expressways and 35.4 km of interconnecting roads
  • 148 bridges for a total length of 70 km
  • 75 tunnels for a total length of 61 km
  • 3.75 million m3 of earthworks
  • US$ 12.6 million/km

With challenging terrain, over 70% of the expressway consisting of tunnels and bridges (with the longest tunnel some 7.5 km long), the Hubei provincial government were concerned about the potential negative environmental impact of the project on such a sensitive area. These concerns were echoed by some at the Bank who I recall saying ‘why on earth would you want to put an expressway through a national park’ …

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The answer was really quite simple. The expressway was going to be built whether or not the World Bank was involved. The Hubei government wanted the Bank to assist them in making the project an example of how to construct an expressway through an environmentally sensitive area with minimal impacts. Management fully supported this and I was assigned the task of helping to realize this vision. With the support of the Hubei government and my team we designed the project, but I was not involved at all with the implementation.

I was grateful to have the opportunity early June 2014 to return to Yiba to see how things had gone.  I joined over 100 environmental and social colleagues (the ‘Environmental Community of Practice’—or COP)  from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Japan International Co-Operation Agency, China Exim Bank, Korea Exim Bank, and Australian Aid to visit the Yiba project to learn of its experiences.  My role was to give them context of the project, and also to assist in answering questions about why some things were done. It was wonderful to go back and see what an amazing job the ‘Hubei Provincial Transport Department’ (HPTD) did on the project, as well as they way they (and the Bank team) built upon our ideas and really improved on them.

To be a success, the project needed commitment to the environment. This was shown by the Hubei government through the HPTD. They were the client who implemented the project and it was their vision that we had to help them articulate and realize. Both parties were committed to building on our previous experiences and innovating to minimize any negative environmental and social impacts of the project. We did this in a number of ways.

Route Selection

When dealing with any major ‘greenfield’ project, the key is to find the optimum alignment. During our ‘Identification’ mission we travelled the entire length of the proposed alignment over several days, carefully reviewing the proposed locations of the expressway, interchanges, interconnecting roads, etc. The photo below shows three of my team: my Environmental Specialist Anil Somani (at the right), Highway Engineer extraordinaire Jean-Marie Bruan (the only European), and Transport Engineer Wenling Chen (the only female). The cool looking fellow at the left in the sun glasses is Mr. Wang Yanghong from the Project Management Unit who was key to the project’s success.

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Some of the key considerations in selecting the final alignment were:
  • Use tunnels/viaducts to reduce environmental impact
  • Avoided cultural relics
  • Balance materials to minimize waste deposits
  • Limit cuts on slopes if at all possible to 40 m

These principles are easier said than done, but thanks to the hard work of the two design institutes we were able to agree upon what would prove to be a good overall alignment.

Karst Caves

Anil Somani taught me everything that I know about transport and the environment. He was the consummate professional who would come to me and, if there was a problem, expect me to solve it. He had this certain tone of voice which I immediately knew meant ‘more work for Chris’. It was with this voice that he said ‘the route traverses karst caves’. I had no idea what the implications were, but I knew it meant more work…

Karst is a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone.  The map below shows the areas where we traversed karst.

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The issue that we faced was that these caves can be totally unique eco systems with flora and fauna, particularly invertebrates, not found anywhere else. The YouTube video below from another project shows the implications of development on these ecosystems.

Karst Cave Biodiversity

This meant that we would need to trigger the World Bank’s ‘Natural Habitat’ policy and undertake necessary investigationsimage to protect these habitats.  A special team was hired which undertook detailed cave surveys within 1 km of the centreline, mapping them and taking samples of the flora and fauna.

This helped us to define specific mitigation measures to be taken in the project – such as putting in fencing to prevent workers accessing the caves, or changing the runoff from the road so that the caves would not be flooded. It was great to be working with the team under the guidance of our biodiversity specialist Tony Whitten, who got particularly excited when they discovered what was thought to be a new species of beetle.

imageThe process for identifying a species is quite precise.  The samples were sent off to Guangzhou and from there they worked with specialists in France to classify the samples. There was a major discovery: a “…beautiful trechine carabid beetle from Duandongzi Cave, Yichang, is both a new genus and species and is named the Superbotrechus bennetti.” A full description of the beetle is in the paper here (it is in French). Yes, I was honoured with having a bug named after me.

 

 

Waste Disposal

As I mentioned earlier, there was some 3.5 million m3 of waste from excavating tunnels and other project earthworks to be disposed of. If not done correctly, this can lead to major environmental damages. An example of this is shown below (not from Yiba) where waste has spilled over into a farmer’s rice paddy. Unfortunately, scenes like this are common in projects all over the world. Contractors—who are interested in saving money—locate waste deposit sites in the most convenient place they can, and the waste sites are often lacking proper engineering such as toe walls and drainage.

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For Yiba we wanted to avoid this and so during the project preparation and design stage, the HPTD identified 63 locations which would constitute the waste disposal sites.

imageThe process used was to identify the location of waste sites, in consultation with local authorities, and do a proper preliminary design including toe walls, drainage, slope protection and access roads. The figure to the left is an example of such a design. The ‘Environmental Management Plan’ (EMP)—which governs how the project will minimize the negative environmental impacts—then included a clear description of the waste sites and actions to be taken.

I was very fortunate to have one of the Bank’s best Social Specialists on my team—Zhefu Liu. Like Anil, he has very high standards and expectations for Task Team Leaders like myself so he made a lot of work for me, but it was worth it. Zhefu had come up with an approach on earlier projects where he would work with the client to identify areas of unproductive land (e.g. deep ravines). They would then use these to store waste materials, but engineer them in such a way that at the end of the process there was top soil and the land was turned over to farmers to replace the land that was lost to the road. This was used to great effect on Yiba.

Site Access Roads

When you are building a new greenfield road, there is seldom sufficient access for the contractor to the site. So they end up constructing ‘access roads’. This is typically done as shown in the figure below (not from Yiba) by sending out a digger and just cutting away as the contractor thinks best, along an alignment that they have chosen.

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The HPTD was very concerned about this as not only was the Yiba expressway going through a national park, but the challenging terrain and isolation were such that there would be more access roads than usual. The solution they came up with was similar to that for the waste sites: the bid documents clearly identified where contractors would be permitted to build roads, or use existing roads, for access to their sites. General designs were given for new roads—including drainage—and each road had specific mitigation measures included in the EMP.

Contractors Not Understanding the EMP

The EMP is a critical document which contractors need to follow to minimize the negative environmental impacts of their projects. If they do not follow it, you end up with problems—many of which can be permanent. The figure below is an example (not from Yiba) of a site where a contractor had excavated materials from the side of a hill but not restored it properly. This will lead to erosion, danger to animals, as well as just looking ugly!

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One thing that contractors do understand are technical specifications. So for the Yiba project the specific EMP requirements were included in the contract in the form of technical specifications. They were also priced in the ‘Bill of Quantity’ which is part of the bid. In this way it was not only clear what was required, but the cost as well.

Environmental Non-Compliance Penalties

One of the problems that we encounter in projects all over the world is that contractors sometimes decide that in the interest of finishing the project quickly, they will ignore the environmental damages and then try to fix it as much as possible when the construction is done. This seldom works.

imageOne of my team—Emily Dubin—had the misfortune to be delegated by me the responsibility to work with the HPTD to come up with some workable system that would effectively penalize contractors financially for non-compliance with the EMP. Our first attempt was from a consultant who came up with a very complicated approach including deductions based on the degree of damage, etc. and it was just not workable. Emily and Mr. Wang came up with a much more elegant and simple solution:

  • If the non-compliance was minor, the contractor would be instructed to fix it. If within a reasonable time period this was done, nothing more would happen. If, however, they did not fix it within that time frame, another contractor would be appointed to fix the work and the cost would be deducted from the next payment.
  • For major non-compliance in addition to remedying it (if possible) there would be a fine.

I remember Mr. Wang arranging a meeting for us with several contractors to discuss the approach. They told me that it was fair because they would be given a warning and the opportunity to fix it. They also said that they would always fix it themselves because not only would it be more expensive to them to have someone else fix it, but word would get around that they were unable to fix the problem which would be most embarrassing.

I was told during my visit that this was an improvement over previous projects, but that the HPTD went even further, instituting a reward system as well. Each month 0.4% of the payments were put into an environmental fund. If the contractor did well, they would get that back, and potentially up to a 0.6% bonus for exceptional work. They also instituted formal awards for contractors who did the best. These two motivators made the world of difference and by the end of the project they were doing very well with environmental compliance—and innovations.

Poor Environmental Supervision

World Bank projects typically have a consultant who is responsible for managing the civil works, and the environmental and social compliance, on behalf of the client. This model is used on large projects throughout the world.

One of the challenges that we find is that these firms—usually staffed by civil engineers—too often misimages environmental and social issues.  When we visit the sites it is disconcerting to see problems that the consultant should have picked up on and addressed. The picture to the right is an example of this. Not only had the contractor turned off power to tunnel ventilation (a common activity as it saves money), but the ventilation duct was itself broken and even if the power was on would not have worked!

For the Yiba project we adopted a different model for the environmental supervision. A separate contract was given to only undertake environmental supervision. There were three ‘regular’ supervision engineers for the civil works and electrical/mechanical investments, and then one for the environment.

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This team undertook regular and detailed monitoring activities and provided the HPDT detailed information on the environmental performance. The HPDT even elevated their importance by requiring that any payment certificate to the contractor had to not only be approved by the regular supervision engineer, but also signed off by the environmental supervision engineer. This was a brilliant innovation which I’m sure gave the contractors a lot more respect for the environmental engineer.

Ensuring Citizen Participation

imageThe only way that we at the Bank can fully meet our environmental and social safeguard policies is by engaging the public as much as possible. We do this during project preparation by undertaking extensive public consultations, but the focus is often on ensuring that people receive their due compensation for land, trees, or other resettlement related activities.

Another of Zhefu’s ideas was to have an SMS based system which would enable people to advise the HPDT of issues related to the environment (or social). Under Emily’s guidance had a system developed by a Chinese company and I have since built upon this on other projects.

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Others

In addition to the above we piloted a number of other initiatives, including:

  • Environmentally and Socially Responsible Procurement: supported new labour law through worker training
  • HIV/AIDS Education: Education campaign for workers and local residents which helped refine the ‘Road to Good Health’ HIV/AIDS in Transport Toolkit
  • Road Safety Audit: Ensured that the road was designed with proper consideration of safety, in particular we paid careful attention to junctions and interconnecting roads
  • Worker Camps: Limited the number, size and locations as well as ensuring that issues such as sanitation requirements were clearly identified in the bids

What Did We Find

As I commented above, the HPTD and the task team moved things further than I could ever have hoped. The best way of appreciating this is through an amazing 18 minute movie the HPTD did of the final Yiba expressway. I’ve uploaded it to Youtube and you can watch it below. This gives you an overview of the incredible engineering achievement that is the Yiba project. I’ll do another post on my actual visit to the site and some observations.

Hubei Yichang–Badong Expressway

It’s a real honour to have been involved with this project and I was humbled when the HPDT gave myself and the rest of the team an award for the very small role we played.

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