CAMILO MEJIA GIRALDO | Mongabay | Extract
MADANG— On the banks of the Banab River in Papua New Guinea’s province of Madang, rows of makeshift wooden shops, eateries and huts have popped up alongside the remnants of a bridge that collapsed a year ago.
Since January 2018, locals have had to make do with crossing the Banab on foot along a makeshift wooden bridge or via a series of small boats that ferry people between the banks, both costing two kina a crossing.
The only alternate for large vehicles involves a drive inland along an abandoned logging road and a crossing over backfilled creeks, an option that can only be safely attempted in dry weather.
Until late last year, stacks of prefabricated metal slated for the bridge’s repairs had been seemingly abandoned by government contractors on the side of the road near the southern bank of the river. According to locals, the materials had been there since July.
Now, contractors employed by the central government say the bridge is finally on the verge of reopening, with the replacement coming in the form of a temporary Bailey bridge, a prefabricated and portable design.
According to local media, the current construction company is the second to be contracted after the initial one “allegedly failed to carry out the work.”
The Banab bridge isn’t some minor crossing in a sparsely populated part of PNG. The 88-metre structure is a vital link along PNG’s sole northern highway, connecting more than half a million people in Madang’s northern region to the province’s eponymous capital to the south.
For the predominantly agricultural communities in the area, the crossing also connects them to key markets of Lae, the country’s second-largest city, and the densely populated highlands.
When compared to the investment in infrastructure in PNG’s urban centres, the delays in repairing the Banab bridge are seen by locals as reflecting not only mismanagement and alleged corruption by the government, but also the continued neglect of rural areas where more than 80% of the country’s population lives.
Around 550 kilometres to the south-west of this broken link is Port Moresby, PNG’s capital. A quick tour of the city reveals a stark contrast to the realities in Madang and much of the rural countryside.
Although much of Port Moresby remains underdeveloped, with nearly half of its population living in informal settlements, there’s ample evidence of investment in upgrades.
Numerous slick black roads with nearly fluorescent yellow lines pepper the small city, including the six-lane Independence Boulevard leading up to Parliament House, built by Chinese contractors with Chinese funding.
Having hosted the Pacific Games in 2015 at an estimated cost of K2 billion, Port Moresby also held the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in November last year. The latter event saw a further round of government spending in the city, including the building of six new roads at a cost of K700 million.
Although international events like the APEC Summit are lauded by the government as a showcase for the country that will encourage investment, the up-front costs have already had an impact on the country’s stretched resources.
PNG remains one of the poorest nations in the Pacific. The country’s economy has been recovering from a downturn that began in 2015, when global commodity prices fell for many of the country’s key exports, including oil, coffee and gold.
The government continues to receive large amount of aid from countries like Australia, but has recently taken on a series of concessional loans from China to help reach its infrastructure goals — a move that has concerned both local organizations and international experts.
Despite this continued influx of foreign money, issues such as the Banab bridge are all too common. Because the bridge is located along a national highway, the national government is responsible for its maintenance and repair.
“It’s their [national government’s] delays. The funds have already been made available, it’s caught up between the national works department and treasury,” says Madang’s provincial planning director, Simon Simoi.
“We can only push the issue in parliament, through our elected MPs. For me, the person in charge of provincial works, I can’t do much.”
According to Simoi, the collapse of the bridge affected more than 700,000 people in northern Madang, most of who depend on the highway for their livelihood, using it to transport their agricultural produce to the rest of the country.
On the southern bank of the Banab, local travellers waiting for the next transport to Madang town cite corruption throughout all levels of government as the main reason for the delays, a familiar narrative echoed in many of PNG’s rural areas.
This point of view is further propelled by the constant state of disrepair of provincial roads and bridges throughout Madang, and indeed the rest of the country.
In 2018, the Banab bridge was just one of three in northern PNG to collapse. According to local media, at least one of these other bridges remains unpassable and is only slated to be repaired this year with funding from the World Bank.
Bobby Mondurafa, a civil engineer with the works and transport department in the neighbouring province of Eastern Highlands, says the “misappropriation” of resources combined with the lack of central government funding for provincial budgets hinders infrastructure development in the country.
“You build [a road] up to here and then you find out that the funds meant for the project have been depleted, mismanaged by the provincial government,” Mondurafa says. He adds that numerous road projects in the province have been left unfinished due to the disappearance of funds.
“Sometimes the contractors are connected to the top level and the money is misused. The misappropriation [of funds] is a big trend. Everybody goes in there; the politicians want to be rich,” he says.
Konopo Kana, a spokesperson for the national Department of Works, did not directly comment on the alleged mismanagement of provincial government budgets, but highlighted the multimillion-dollar rehabilitation project of the national Highlands Highway, launched by the country’s prime minister on Jan. 18. According to a press release provided by Kana, the 10-year project, funded largely by the Asian Development Bank, aims to upgrade and maintain approximately 430 kilometers (267 miles) of the vital road.
Despite ambitious projects like this occurring in some parts of the country, the reality is that funding for the majority of rural infrastructure budgets falls short. According to Mondurafa, the budget provided by the central government to Eastern Highlands province in 2018 allowed for only a few roads and bridges to be maintained, leaving nothing for new projects.
“Just a handful of the roads are maintained, every year. And not entire parts of the roads, because of the funding,” he says.
“The government is doing [some road upgrades] but our complaint is that much of the development is in POM [Port Moresby]. They are doing everything in POM when the whole country — we are underdeveloped and we need infrastructure, maintenance and all this — they are not prioritising it,” he says.