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Mapping rural Mozambique: Findings from my first World Bank mission

Xavier Espinet Alegre's picture
Mapping gravel roads in flood-prone areas amidst talk of guerrilla ambushes was not what I had imagined when I signed up as a climate change specialist for the World Bank.  But if my first trip to the Zambezia and Nampula provinces in northern Mozambique is any indication of what life as a World Banker is going to be – my teenage Indiana Jones fantasies may well come true!
It all started innocently enough when I was hired to support a project in Mozambique focused on improving the conditions of feeder roads to foster agricultural production. The northern provinces of Zambezia and Nampula are major agricultural producers for the country, but also highly flood-prone. The Zambezi, Ligonha and Molocue rivers flood almost every rainy season, rendering significant elements of the road network impassable, sometimes for months.  A changing climate could increase the severity and frequency of extreme rainfall – further exacerbating flood risks. Our goal was to identify elements of the unmapped, “unclassified” feeder network which could be improved to provide network redundancy, and thus improve road system resilience to flooding.  It quickly became clear that the first step in evaluating an unmapped network is to map it, so I spent the last two weeks in Mozambique working with the government to do just that.
Building Roads in Mozambique/ Photo: Xavier Espinet

My team was looking for an easy, inexpensive way to survey these unclassified roads. New technologies using satellite imagery can be used to map unclassified roads, but the cost of such services was prohibitive for our program. We decided to use a smartphone app – RoadLab – developed by the Bank and free to download through GPS, which can easily map the road and roughly estimate its conditions. As an eager, new member of my team, I volunteered to go to the field and lead the data collection effort.
Within just a week and a half, with the app installed on my smartphone, I was boarding a plane to Maputo. Over the next week, together with a team of local engineers, I drove about 3,000 kilometers, of which only 300 kilometers were paved. My background is in civil engineering, and those seven days taught me things that I had never grasped during nine years of undergraduate and graduate engineering education. I learned about local practices for unpaved road maintenance and various contractual procedures, but above all, I learned that a safe, reliable transport infrastructure is vital for rural communities.
We talked to a family who was walking for six hours to attend a relative’s funeral. We talked to a farmer who had to bike for two hours with two 50 kilo bags of rice to reach the closest market. We talked to a community who had built their own wooden bridge to be able to reach some of their crops. We talked to a group of women who needed to use a canoe to cross two sides of a river that once were connected by a bridge. We talked to another farmer whose village had been isolated after the only bridge collapsed a year and a half ago. I need to give a lot of credit and thanks to Breslau, a local engineer who speaks the Makhuwa language; he did a lot of translating when my Portuguese was not enough.
I was surprised to find that I was not the only one on my team who learned so much. Some of the Mozambican engineers who worked with me had never been to these remote regions before. The younger engineers -- especially those who had only ever lived in the cosmopolitan city of Maputo -- were not fully aware of the transport challenges of the rural areas.  
The part of the mission of which I am perhaps most proud, though, are the relationships we built. I believe that the connections we make with people on the ground are the foundation of a successful project. We worked closely with the local authorities to help build capacity to replicate this exercise in other areas. At the same time, this mission gave local engineers a chance to leave their offices and reconnect with the communities they work for, as well as with colleagues from other parts of the country.
After collecting information for 1,550 kilometers of rural roads in Mozambique, I’m back in D.C. I returned, not only with my first mission under my belt, but with a new awareness about the challenges of maintaining and supporting rural transportation networks.  I’m looking forward to many more missions and seeing this particular project through to the end. Besides, I think this Indiana Jones adventure needs a sequel.

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