Trail bridges in Nepal are a highly successful, long-standing Swiss development intervention. The Trail Bridge Support Unit (TBSU), an SDC project implemented by Helvetas, continues to advise on technical issues. Bridge construction is now fully integrated into government budgeting and planning processes. The formation of local, socially inclusive bridge user groups, introduced through TBSU, has become a standard national procedure for most bridges.
Over 8,000 trail bridges have been built in Nepal – some two thirds of them through successive SDC projects, and all of them technically verified by Helvetas engineers. Each of these bridges makes the routes used by an average 1,800 people shorter and safer. Following the construction of a new trail bridge, school attendance increases on average by 21%, and consultations at health centers go up 32%. In 39% of cases, new stores, snack bars and repair shops open up near the bridge.
Nepal’s trail bridges are a standout success in development cooperation. From early days when all construction aspects were overseen by Swiss engineers, Nepalese engineers are now fully in charge and are developing new designs for new needs.
Initially, clear priority was given to connecting remote mountain settlements, but these days there are also demands for designs that suit lowland areas. Nepalese engineers are now also providing advice on trail bridge construction in other countries.
Working with the Government of Nepal, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) recently commissioned Helvetas to continue providing technical assistance to the national trail bridge program for another four years (December 2019 – November 2023). This assistance includes working with educational institutes in providing technical courses to engineers and technicians. Women engineers are especially encouraged through an SDC scholarship program implemented by Helvetas.
Trail bridges are more than mere infrastructure. From the beginning, Helvetas sought to foster community spirit, developing a participatory process of bridge construction and maintenance that has become a national government guideline. This guideline applies to all short span bridges (less than 120m long), which represent 90% of trail bridges in the country; only long, technically complex bridges are built by contractors.
For each short span bridge, the future users discuss the bridge site, gain an understanding of basic technical issues, organize materials, and contribute hard days of labor (or the financial equivalent). And in the process, they make the bridge their own. Upon bridge completion, a public meeting is held to verify that it meets quality standards and that the funds have been used properly.
Helvetas’ partner organizations help set up bridge maintenance committees to oversee the operation and upkeep of the bridge. These committees must include women and members of disadvantaged groups, who often have little or no say in other aspects of public life. For many committee members, this is their very first step towards political participation. Which makes each suspension bridge a training ground for democracy.
Technical assistance to the Trail Bridge Program of the Government of Nepal is provided by Helvetas under a mandate of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).
Amritha Bhandari, mother and owner of a snack bar by the Ranighat suspension bridge, Hariharpur, Nepal