Observations on Ethiopian Road Construction:
Almaz Fesseha 01-14-16
Ethiopia has been making progress in its economic growth and positive changes are apparent in most parts of the country. Investor confidence is reflected by rapid progress in development and infrastructure. Many roads and bridges are either constructed or are in the process. Though Ethiopia is adapting well to its recent development, there are several areas within the planning and operation of road construction that could be better streamlined and made more transparent in order to improve efficiency and safety, and improve relationships with local communities. As a professional civil engineer (PE) specializing in the design and construction of roads, with many years of experience in both Ethiopia and the USA, I decided to share ideas and provide constructive feedback in regards to procedures implemented in the USA that may minimize problems and expedite construction in Ethiopia. After several visits to Ethiopia, I have observed coordination issues that are causing construction delays, citizen dissatisfactions, safety issues, and issues raised by lack of review of contractors and other support companies. These problems are not unique to Ethiopia as all countries pass through similar stages before they correct and refine their process.
The primary cause of construction delays are unforeseen existing infrastructures within a proposed construction site. In Ethiopia, during construction, an unexpected utility line may be encountered within the project route and construction is halted until the line is relocated. If broken during the process, it may take months depending on the availability of parts and funds to replace the same before the restart of the actual project construction.
Here in the California County where I worked for many years, existing site conditions and a construction schedule are clearly defined in the design and contract documents before construction begins. A project designer collects and includes in the design all utility data including the type, location and depth within the limits of the project. Each existing utility is labeled whether it will be relocated, removed, replaced, or protect in place. It further includes the connection to the existing on both sides of the new road to make sure that there is smooth transition and continuity of service. The contract document includes an important section, “Beginning of Work, Time of Completion and Liquidated Damages”. The project goes to bid and the contractor who wins the bid gets the job. Before the start of construction, a recorded Pre-construction or pre-con meeting is conducted and participants include the owner of the project, the contractor and all his/her subcontractors, all utility company representatives, sections of the government agencies such as Inspection, Design, Traffic, Materials, Waste Water and Sewage. These representatives are expected to clearly inform the contractor what utilities to watch out for, how utilities are going to be relocated if need be, who pays for the relocation, the time line of these outside work, and what every section expects from the contractor. The County has a “Pavement Cut Policy” that discourages utility companies from cutting newly constructed or resurfaced pavements within 3 years. So utility companies have to review their schedule to make sure the new construction is not going to be interrupted.
It is after all the hurdles are removed that the contractor can start the construction job. This is when actual work begins and the contractor is expected to complete the job by the agreed upon time. There may be an extension due to unexpected problems such as subsurface conditions, shallow groundwater or change in weather. All the work called out in the design are expected to be completed within the number of working days specified during the bidding process or the agreed upon days after the pre-con. If not, the contractor is expected to pay liquidated damages for each additional day that he/she needs to complete the job.
In Adwa, in 2014, the residents were urged to demolish a portion or the entirety of their home that was supposedly within the road right of way as the road was scheduled to be constructed. Residents were alarmed by the urgency and also excited that the badly distressed road would finally be demolished and reconstructed. They proceeded to demolish their homes and erected temporary fencing to protect themselves from potential intruders. When I returned in October 2015, there was no construction on-site and those involved did not seem to know why. The residents were complaining about their health problems from the dust produced by the demolished homes. It was later discovered that there were existing power poles within the road right of way that needed to be relocated before construction could proceed. However, the owner, Ethiopian Electric Light & Power Authority (EEPLA) could not relocate them on time as it did not have the necessary funds.
Improving transparency in the construction process would greatly improve relations between the government and the people. The Adwa project could have benefited from an efficient and transparent construction process and the demolishing of homes could have been delayed until the power lines were properly relocated. The lack of information about the construction delay offended residents, who felt the government had abandoned them and unnecessarily required that they demolish their homes one year in advance of construction. In the absence of official information, residences are susceptible to fabricated information and rumors, causing frustration and alienation. The coordination with utility companies and updating the residents have to be the first order of work and the government or its representative should enforce it through the Kebelles and other means.
In the County where I live, the contractor is required to hang a notice at every door in the neighborhood stating that they will be in the neighborhood with start and completion dates, time of day start and finish, and includes the name, telephone number and e-mail address of the designated contact person for any questions and concerns. Public notice also gets published in local newspaper providing the necessary details of the work hours and duration of construction. Though this is not expected to be done in Ethiopia yet, the Kebelle can be used to disseminate the information. This actually will work best at the Awraja and Woreda levels. It will minimize the current disconnect between the government and the people especially at the state level where the government decides a case or a project and the people watch it implemented. In the USA, government employees whether elected, appointed or hired have the mandate to work for the people. They are paid by taxpayers to serve the taxpayer. Every project is reviewed and discussed by the community which is equivalent to our old Keftegna. Regular meetings are arranged to obtain information from and views of the residents.
In regards to safety issues, most construction sites in Ethiopia do not have sufficient warning signs to caution motor vehicles, motorcycles, and pedestrians as to what is ahead. Now that the population is soaring and more foreign investors, NGOs and tourists are residing in the cities and towns, safety within construction sites needs to be seriously considered and appropriate measures taken to avoid any hazard and liability. Ethiopia should enforce safety precautions in every contract item before any disaster happens and residents start suing the government, contractor or project owner.
In the USA, the contractor is expected to install appropriate signs with reflectors for night vision around potholes, trenches, or bumps and material mounts within the pavements or walkways. If the road is the only access in the area, the contractor works on one lane and opens the other lane for vehicle access or provide a detour.
Emergency vehicle access is maintained at all times. “Trench Plating” is required to cover major trenches, holes, excavations within the traveled way using steel plates. Walkways if excavated, are either closed and pedestrians rerouted or are barricaded if it is a small trench. The contractor is required to place “Open Trench” signs at the beginning of each excavation on each direction of travel and at intervals for a specified distances as warning signs. In the case of road widening, post delineators at certain intervals or K-rails are placed at the edge of the paved road to prevent motor vehicles from driving off the road into the slope or ditch.
In regards to contractors, few are blamed for not paying subcontractors, equipment rental companies, and other suppliers by the end of each project. There must be a system in place in Ethiopia by which the owner collects feedback about the contractor’s responsibilities in regards to payment in addition to performance and quality of work after the completion of each project. This will protect individuals who do business with contractors on government projects and will encourage the same to make sure they settle their dues before bidding on the next project.
Ethiopian contractors have the responsibility to earn the trust of the people and the government and to surpass foreign competition in timely completion and quality of work. Contractors should have peer reviews and feedbacks at the end of a construction job for future improvement. It will take a collective effort from contractors to change people’s attitude towards local work. Having said that, local contractors should be encouraged by the government and the people as we eventually should rely on our own builders.
As the country grows, so should government-initiated efforts to improve efficiency, transparency and safety within the construction process. The residents should be engaged in government decisions at every level to have positive and mutual respect, and obtain useful ideas on unforeseen potential problems in the localities. People feel empowered when included in important decisions. As we are inspired by what is happening in Ethiopian development and investments, constructive feedback should be encouraged from citizens in their field of expertise. In my workplace, there is a program called “Do It Better By Suggestion” or DIBBS where employees are encouraged to provide ideas on how to improve specific work or how the office can save money and in return they get financial rewards. In the case of Ethiopia, our reward is when we see positive changes happening and satisfied customers responding.