Highway rebuilding in war-torn Liberia

This article first appeared in Contractor‘s December 2016 issue.

A 180-kilometre road reconstruction project in the Republic of Liberia on Africa’s west coast has presented unusual challenges for both the contractor and the Kiwi-based engineering consultancy involved with the project. RICHARD SILCOCK explains.

Potholed and cratered highway prior to reconstruction.
Potholed and cratered highway prior to reconstruction.

DUE TO 14 YEARS OF CIVIL WAR and political upheaval, much of Liberia’s road asset was either cratered by explosives or neglected due to a lack of maintenance.

A 180-kilometre stretch of largely unsealed roadway, known locally as the Guinea Border Highway, links Monrovia, the port city and capital of Liberia with the neighbouring Republic of Guinea. The highway is regarded as a strategic route for transporting food supplies, pepper, iron and rubber from the inland areas to the port for export so the government was eager to repair and reinstate it as a fully paved carriageway.

A US$166 million reconstruction programme funded by the World Bank was put in place and tenders called, with China based Chongqing International Construction Corporation (CICO) winning the contract, along with New Zealand based Opus International in association with Arup (South Africa) as the engineering consultants.

Under a procurement of works and services, an Output and Performance Based Road Contract (OPRC) was instituted with the Liberian Ministry of Public Works and the World Bank (the Liberia Reconstruction Trust Fund) and over the past three years CICO has been working with Opus and Arup SA to bring the rehabilitation of the highway to fruition.

Primitive drop hammer being used to excavate shafts for bridge pier pile foundations.
Primitive drop hammer being used to excavate shafts for bridge pier pile foundations.

“We were able to provide the level of work required at a very competitive price due to our sourcing of equipment and material from China where the procurement cost is much less,” says Fu Liangquan, general manager with CICO in Africa. “Secondly, we have very strong technical knowledge brought about by years of infrastructural development within China and globally, and thirdly we have experience of working in relatively poor countries and providing entrepreneurial drive to achieve results.”

Under the contract CICO is required to maintain the highway for a period of seven years, in addition to the three years spent in the design/reconstruction work.

Reconstruction involved some corridor realignment and the relocation and resettlement of some villages, the building of several new bridges, construction of 30 box culverts, 390 concrete pipe and 256 access culverts, widening of the embankments and cuttings, and the repair of 27 bridges. Several crushed granite base layers of up to 200mm were put down and topped with a 50mm asphalt seal. Erection of guard rails and traffic signs, along with road markings were also completed.

Almost all the plant and machinery for the project was shipped from China. This included 65 dump trucks, 26 excavators and loaders, a number of graders and rollers, three asphalt spreaders and a fleet of water tankers to maintain control over the red dusty ground. Eighty-three Chinese and New Zealand civil engineers and 950 local workers were employed for the project.

Completed highway.
Completed highway.

Rowan Kyle, technical principal and global asset management manager with Opus, says that some of the more unusual challenges with the project included the type of geology encountered, the extremes in climate, the health risks including Ebola, the volatile politics, a lack of trained engineers within the country, and, frequently, language barriers.

“The landscape over which the highway traverses is mostly hilly in the inland areas with much of it covered in tropical rain forest,” says Rowan. “This gives way to rolling plains covered in elephant grass which in turn gives way to vast swampy areas along the coast. Much of the ground geology is similar to that found in Australia’s arid centre and northern tropical areas.

“The equatorial climate alternates between extreme heat and severe drought to significant heavy rainfall seasons – all of which make road construction difficult.

“With a population of just over four and a half million there are around 20 indigenous languages spoken by the numerous tribes that are spread throughout the country and who make up more than 95 percent of the community,” says Rowan. “While English is taught in the schools and spoken by the well-educated, communication is often an issue especially when working away from the capital.

“Following the military coup in 1980, the country went through a period of political instability culminating in two civil wars and the death and displacement of more than half a million people, devastation of the economy and destruction of much of the infrastructure,” he says. “The latter had been built by the Americans during the Second World War when Liberia was a strategic outpost providing a base for US and British aircraft patrolling the Atlantic.

“Following the civil wars a peace agreement was eventually reached in 2005-06 with a democratic election taking place, however it is believed about 85 percent of the population still live below the poverty line and the political environment is still unsettled.”

The country’s people were further threatened in 2014 with the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus epidemic which spread from neighbouring Guinea and resulted in significant loss of life.

“This severely impacted on the project,” says Rowan. “It delayed progress for the duration of the epidemic.

“As co-consultants for this project, our role has been to manage the day-to-day activities of the contractor, peer review the design and make recommendations to the client, monitor construction quality, assist in managing the resettlements, and ensure the health, safety and environmental conditions were met,” says Rowan. “We also trained and upskilled three local engineers during the rehabilitation phase and will be assisting in their ongoing training during the maintenance phase and hosting their participation in a road asset management seminar in New Zealand.”

With the rehabilitation phase now complete, CICO is now working through the maintenance phase. This is an important aspect of the OPRC concept, with the contractor responsible for the ongoing maintenance post construction.

Quarterly auditing of the maintenance work will be put in place with penalties if the contractor does not maintain the highway to the specified standards over the contract period. In addition, and prior to the conclusion of the contract, CICO will lay a 40mm asphaltic cement overlay along the length of the highway to ensure there is an adequate level of residual life left in the pavement surface when it is handed over to the Liberian Ministry of Public Works.




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