British government aid is helping economic growth in some of the Philippines' poorest rural communities, as Judith Cruickshank discovers.
In any city bisected by a river, bridges are an essential element in the pattern of traffic flow. The loss of a single crossing for maintenance or repair generally results in traffic jams, delays, missed appointments and lost tempers.
For a small rural community the situation can be far more serious. The loss of a bridge on the route to the nearest town at a stroke removes access to markets, education or medical facilities. A bridge can make the difference between poverty and prosperity, life and death.
In the vast rural areas of the Philippines where the national road network is not yet intensively developed, maintaining adequate local roads and bridges is essential for any hope of real economic growth.
Following a nationwide study in 1996 which reported on the condition of some 7,350 bridges throughout the highway network, the British government agreed to contribute to the rehabilitation, replacement or new construction of 256 bridges.
After an initial appraisal by Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick, Halcrow was appointed by the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) to administer the £25M ($37.5M) scheme.
Regions covered by the programme are Mindanao, Visayas, Bicol and the Cordilleras Administrative Region, which represent 60% of the nation's poor and 68% of the rural poor in the Philippines. Applications for inclusion in the programme come from bridgemasters or from local or national politicians and are made to the Philippines Department of Public Works & Highways (DPWH).
Every month Halcrow engineer Andreas Huber, who is in charge of the project, spends a week travelling to some of the remotest parts of the Philippines to assess the need for bridge replacements and check progress on those projects already under way.
Bridges are selected on a number of criteria. They have to connect poor districts with local or regional growth areas and the routes on which they lie are subjected to economic analysis. They must be cost effective and suitable for the anticipated traffic flows. And they should be on routes that are not at risk of becoming unusable because of the failure of another element - a second bridge for instance.
The needs of pedestrians and other non-motorised traffic must be considered. In some instances this might mean moving the location of a replacement bridge so that it better serves pedestrians. Where applicable, river traffic must be taken into account. Nor should there be any lasting adverse effect on the natural environment. The impact of construction must also be taken into account.
Finally, in cases where there are equal and conflicting claims, it is the poorest community that is always favoured. 'The main objective of the programme is to serve the poor, ' Huber explains.
The steel superstructures of the new bridges are manufactured in the UK by BalfourCleveland, a consortium of Balfour Beatty and Cleveland Bridge. Crossings between 12m (the shortest covered by the programme) and 30m are supplied by Cleveland Bridge. These are simple plate girder bridges - 'the more basic the better', says project director Ray Mustard - two lanes wide and requiring only simple mass concrete abutments. Designed specifically for this project, they have now become a standard product.
For crossings of more than 30m, Balfour Beatty's Power Networks division supplies a modular truss bridge which operations manager Tony Fogg describes as 'a standard thirdworld product'. The longest supplied so far to the Philippines is 96m, but the design will span distances of up to 120m, he adds.
Balfour-Cleveland helps with training and supervision of site staff. Installation is the responsibility of the DPWH.
Once a bridge has the goahead from Huber the DPWH appoints a contractor to carry out construction of the abutments and installation of the bridge itself. The programme was originally due to last four years but has been extended due to early problems with co-ordination and a lack of information. It is now due to finish in 2005. By then, thanks to UK aid and engineering, 256 communities will have secure links to the world beyond their villages.