The reconstruction of Seke Road starts today as part of the second phase of the central Government’s Emergency Road Repair Programme 2 (ERRP2) put in place when it became obvious that most urban authorities were unable to fulfil their municipal mandate to make and repair their roads.
The work on this road goes far beyond “repair”. At least one major section requires reconstruction, largely because the original road was never built to the standards required for exceptionally heavy traffic, not even when the need became clear and the highway was dualised.
We need to remember that building a decent road is far more than just grading the surface and then shoving a layer of bitumen on top. A road has to be built, and this involves in many cases clearing the surface, and sometimes even trenching the surface, and then putting in the layers of stone, gravel and clay. The final bitumen surface is actually a layer of carefully sized small stones with the bitumen just there to hold them together and provide a waterproof surface.
The heavier the traffic, and the more dubious the underlying surface geology, the thicker the road bed has to be. What might well be perfectly adequate for light suburban traffic will never cope with continuous convoys of heavy trucks.
When we look into the history of Seke Road we find why the damage on a long crucial middle section, roughly from Coke Corner, the intersection with Vitalis Zvinavashe Road, to the southern edge of old Hatfield is so bad and why the engineers who dualised this section failed miserably to do their job.
The first section of what was called Hatfield Road was the old Salisbury municipality’s main access to the then new Graniteside industrial area. Someone did a reasonable job designing a truck-grade road as a result and it has lasted well although maintenance was skimped in recent years so serious repairs are needed and some of the damage requires a full rebuild.
The next section was basically a suburban road leading into and through a low density suburb. So Hatfield Town Management Board did not have to over-engineer the road as traffic was light and heavy trucks were rare. Even the heavier traffic arising from the opening of the new airport was not a factor as a new road was built for that route, a road that in time had to be completely rebuilt.
When Chitungwiza was developed, the old suburban road had to be extended, along the track that led to St Mary’s and so it was built, although not to the required standards. But the central section was left. You can see this same dichotomy along Chiremba Road, a vaguely adequate or at least better section in the old municipal area leading to the then new middle density suburbs, then a section of pure suburban road leading to a few hundred low density houses in Hatfield that is now a total wreck after the old Methodist farm became a residential area larger than some cities.
The problem arises in maintenance of these converted roads. Frequent filling of potholes and patching, with the patches patched just as frequently, does not solve the problem. The roadbed is too thin and the road needs to be rebuilt to a much higher standard.
This conversion of suburban road to major highway has been seen in other parts of Harare. Liberation Legacy Way (Borrowdale Road) was a minor road that by the 1960s was notoriously bad. The then municipality rebuilt it, as far as its boundary just beyond Borrowdale School. Highlands Town Management Board patched and repaired the next section up to what is now Sam Levy’s Village, and Borrowdale Rural Council did even less work for the next bit as far as the Domboshava boundary. That explains the major rebuild a couple of decades ago.
Some of the delays and excuses for putting off the rebuilds have some validity, largely caused by councils excited about new development and the new ratepayers sending monthly cheques but forgetting to keep their roads engineer posted about the developments let alone giving that department’s work the required priority.
Seke Road is a special case since the required upgrade was supposed to be done on dualisation, but someone skimped and did not do their job. The same skimping was seen on Samora Machel Avenue East which was a disaster by the time the Government stepped in and made reconstruction-level repairs as part of the upgrade of the Mutare-Plumtree national highway upgrade.
Municipal shoddiness has been exposed on a section of Robert Mugabe Road running through Eastlea where almost a kilometre fell into a total mess when the twice-a-year patching was skimped. This only a few years after that road was properly aligned and, supposedly, properly rebuilt. The present Government emergency work has seen proper repairs, with potholes dug out and roadbed repairs made before the patches were put in place and that section resurfaced over what is hoped to be a proper roadbed.
It is this need to repair or rebuild or upgrade the roadbed that makes roadwork so expensive, especially when the damage is bad after years of poor maintenance. Those who drive from Harare to Beitbridge are seeing this on the upgrade of that highway, where trucks carrying stone, gravel and clay are far more common than the occasional truck carrying the mixture of fine stone and bitumen.
The Transport Ministry wanted the job done properly, so its engineers had to redesign the roadbed and then give the correct instructions to the contractors. Chucking some clay into the holes and shoving a bit of bitumen on top was not going to do anything except waste a lot a money, when the same had to be done after the next light shower.
Anyone dubious about the need for proper building of a road should recall that for more than 1 000 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the only decent roads in southern Europe were the old Roman roads, largely because the generals who had those roads built reckoned a multi-layer roadbed of stone, gravel and clay needed to be almost one metre thick, which might be over-engineering for carts and marching soldiers but they did last.
If you build a road right the first time, maintenance is modest, and so long as it is done regularly, that road will last. It costs more, but so long as you prevent corruption by both those who order the work and contractors who do the work, and hire good engineers and good contractors, it is money well spent.
The present emergency programme has obviously gone beyond just the fill and patch work. The trouble is the municipalities will be taking over these roads once they are fixed and here mechanisms need to be put in place that they will then do what they are supposed to do and maintain those roads.
That may well be a bigger problem than fixing them properly in the first place. Fixing is just decent engineering, competent contractors and well-spent Budget allocations, and the Second Republic can do this without dramatics. Maintenance requires competent, corruption-free urban councils, a whole new kettle of fish and one that raises a lot more concern.