I am shocked that today, due to an absence of reliable transport services, more than one-third of the world’s rural population – a billion people – lacks access to education, health and employment opportunities.
During my time in Nepal, first as Resident Director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and later as Swiss Ambassador, I had the opportunity to become involved in the country’s burgeoning trail bridge sector. This transportation innovation has the potential be scaled worldwide and to boost school attendance for young girls, prevent maternal deaths via timely access to health centers, and connect farmers to new markets, thereby increasing and diversifying their incomes. Helvetas’ work in Nepal for more than 60 years has been integral to the nation’s trail bridge success story.
A proven high-impact solution
Crossing rivers in Nepal can be a life-threatening endeavor. Every year, people haul themselves across fast-flowing rivers by cable ropeways and wire bridges. Some, including young school children, get injured in the process. Others have lost their lives. In a village that I visited during my time in Nepal, people said that drownings occur every year during the monsoon floods.
Helvetas has been fighting against this trend by promoting safe river crossing, resulting in significant increases in school attendance, health center consultations and farmer income for millions in rural areas throughout Nepal. Though Nepal has its own tradition of indigenous bridge building dating back centuries, the systematic construction of trail bridges in Nepal began in 1964. About 9,000 trail bridges have been built throughout Nepal’s dense river network, thanks to Helvetas’ technical assistance, budgetary contributions by local governments, voluntary work provided by the communities and funding from SDC. Almost half of the country’s population – about 14 million people – have benefitted from this improved access, with about 1.4 million people crossing a trail bridge each day. Despite a sustained expansion in the nation’s rural road network, trail bridges remain critical for poor people living in marginalized areas. Their usefulness was again demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic when many were able to return to rural areas.
An average of 500 new trail bridges are built each year in Nepal as part of the investment program of local governments. These bridges promote safety and save time: on average, a new bridge shaves three hours off of a roundtrip commute. The construction of a new trail bridge also increases school attendance by 16%, while leading to a 26% increase in health center consultations and a 18% increase in people accessing markets. Bridges often become an economic hub as well. In 20% of cases, new stores, snack bars and repair shops open up near a bridge. The construction of one bridge also injects life into the local economy, providing an estimated 2,600 days of paid labor for a community.
One-third of the global rural population lacks access to all-season roads and transport services, including more than 70% of Africa’s rural population. If we can close the transport access gap in rural areas, an additional one billion people could be connected to education, health, and economic opportunities, according to the World Bank’s “Global Roadmap of Action Toward Sustainable Mobility.” That would multiply the impacts of other development initiatives in the spheres of education, skills development and market systems. Based on this compounding potential, Helvetas has been promoting the replication of the Nepal trail bridge model in 10 countries through South-South Cooperation.
A success story: Going to scale
The demonstrated impact of closing the transportation access gap is remarkable. But what affected me most was its sheer scale: Helvetas’ trail bridge intervention in Nepal impacted millions. What was the key to Helvetas’ transition from a pilot project to a sector-wide approach?
The United States Operation Mission was the first to launch a trail bridge program in Nepal. Within this framework, Helvetas engineers built two successful pilot bridges. Following these positive results, the government of Nepal established the Suspension Bridge Division in 1964. Since 1974, Helvetas has been continuously supporting the government of Nepal in developing trail bridge programs.
This long-term engagement laid the groundwork for knowledge transfer, ultimately leading to a pool of competent local experts. It also allowed for the development of cost-effective technologies, as well as capacity-building within the central government and local agencies, including public, private and civil society sectors. This well-institutionalized program is now being implemented under a sector-wide Approach relying on 50 years of government leadership and financial support from a diverse donor group.
Constructing 500 bridges each year is no easy task. Up until 1980, bridges were built by the government’s central agency. In 1989, Helvetas piloted a simplified bridge technology using a community construction approach, which opened the door for local governments to take on the challenge.
To start, District Development Committees were tasked with planning, implementing and maintaining trail bridges. Based on the new federal structure Nepal put forth in its 2015 constitution, this responsibility was then transferred to municipal governments. The government, especially the decentralized bodies, have continuously increased their financial contribution to the trail bridge program, rendering it almost entirely independent from external funding. Because of this decentralized nature, trail bridges were reconstructed incredibly quickly following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015; community members themselves were tasked with rebuilding their own infrastructure.
In the 1990s, Helvetas helped develop a simple bridge technology that allowed local community members to construct them with technical support from trained technicians. Trail bridge technologies were optimized and standardized, while survey and design manuals were developed. Local businesses and NGOs were involved to provide support, resulting in a massive increase in the number of bridges constructed.
At that same time, Helvetas kicked off a series of trainings for practitioners and engineering students, while engineering colleges and vocational schools began to include trail bridge courses in their curricula and provide training of their own. This helped institutionalize trail bridge capacity-building.
Despite these successes, ensuring bridge quality and policy compliance proved to be a challenge. Helvetas needed to implement rigorous monitoring efforts and had to update computer-based systems, tools that have proven to be effective in monitoring bridge progress, construction quality and maintenance needs to this day.
Amritha Bhandari, mother and owner of a snack bar near the Ranighat suspension bridge in Hariharpur, Nepal
A call to action: Ending rural isolation
To transfer knowledge beyond Nepal and facilitate rural transportation access to millions of people around the world, Helvetas created a trail bridge South-South Cooperation Unit in 2009. This center provides hands-on support to local actors in different countries – including trainings in standardization, policy development and institutionalization – so they can gradually shape their own trail bridge sectors. To date, this program has supported trail bridge sectors in Bhutan, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Laos, Burundi, Honduras, Guatemala, Vietnam and Rwanda.
To shine a light on the neglected topic of rural mobility worldwide and speed up the pace at which rural communities are connected to vital services, Bridges to Prosperity and Helvetas decided to create a global coalition. The Rural Opportunities for Universal Transportation Equity (ROUTE) Coalition was launched in early 2022. ROUTE is focused on advancing systems change through capacity building, promoting action at the national, regional and global level, and advocating for increased funding to first/last mile access programs. Within this framework, Bridges to Prosperity, Helvetas and the government of Ethiopia are partnering with the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to construct safe transport access for more than 1 million rural Ethiopians.
Improving rural transport is an enabler for several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Besides its demonstrated impact on access to education, health and markets, the trail bridge sector in Nepal proved to be an effective entry point to build resilience and local governance. Particularly in fragile, conflict-affected countries, using labor-based transport infrastructure construction to enable access to services and link people with opportunities is considered a powerful way to strengthen social cohesion and drive economic development.
We as development professionals from various sectors can play a role in helping elevate the Nepali trail bridge model to audiences across the globe by:
- Putting the spotlight on the fundamental SDG principle of leaving no one behind and on transformational changes such as strengthening community resilience and supporting the transition to democracy.
- Letting local communities make critical decisions – ideally, through locally elected bodies – on the infrastructure benefitting them and contribute to its realization.
- Promoting the integration of rural mobility in various initiatives such as food security, market access, education, health, resilience and local governance.
- Ensuring the local need and priority of rural people moving forward is reflected in national priorities and investment plans.