According to Nina and Arduz (2016), the density of roads in Bolivia is about 8 km per 100 km2 of territory, which is less than half the average density in Latin America and less than a third of the world average of 28 km/100 km2. By 2012, about 52% of the primary road network was paved, while a very small fraction of other roads was paved. The lack of good roads constitutes a serious limitation on the development of the country, as it dramatically increases transportation time and vehicle maintenance costs, and therefore transport costs (1).
This situation is pretty much inevitable for a large, sparsely populated, mountainous, jungle covered country, like Bolivia, but the Government of Bolivia has been doing its best to improve the situation by channelling enormous amounts of money into road construction (around USD 10 billion during the last 10 years), making the transport sector by far the single biggest recipient of public funds. For example, last year the Bolivian Government budgeted 28.9% of all public investment to the transport sector (28.9% of USD 6.4 billion amounts to USD 1.8 billion), while the education and health sectors received 5.5% each, and the water infrastructure sector only 0.9% (2).
The problem is that almost all of these road investments have been unbelievably badly executed.
In this blog I will present evidence from one stretch of road, which we visited twice this week (once by night, and again two days later to actually see and photograph some of the jarring potholes we drove into in the dark). The road segment in question is the 40 km from Quiquibey to Yucumo (on the primary road from La Paz to Rurrenabaque). This road was recently completely rebuilt and paved by the Spanish company, Corsán Corviam, for which they received approximately USD 31 million (Bs. 214,763,119.15). The Government of Bolivia accepted the completed project in November 2016.
The road came with a 1 year guarantee, supported by a bank deposit of 1.5% of the total value of the contract (around Bs. 3 million). But already 5 months later (after one rainy season), the road was so deteriorated that the Government cashed in the guarantee, and hired a Bolivian road construction company, ICC, to try to patch up the road.
But Bs. 3 million is like a drop in the ocean when trying to deal with major damage like shown in the photo below. We didn’t see this major crack when we were driving by at night, since it was not marked in any way, and we were rather shocked when we returned in daylight and realized just how close we had been to death again.
The maintenance budget is even more inadequate since ICC was not only charged with maintaining the 40 km between Quiquibey and Yucumo, but also the 102 km from Yucumo to Rurrenabaque, which is also full of potholes.
The asphalt on these stretches of road is so badly made that it is basically disintegrating before your eyes. The crocodile skin pattern observed in the photo below is the first phase of disintegration. The cracks allow water to seep through, undermining the foundation below the asphalt, which will quickly erode and create enormous potholes.
The road surface material is so soft that you can break it with your bare hands. I have (accidentally) made brownies that were harder than the asphalt made by Corsán Corviam.
The Spanish company Isolux Corsán (which includes Corsán Corviam) declared bankruptcy earlier this month (3), but not before causing tremendous financial damage to Bolivia. They not only worked on this stretch of road, but also on the La Paz-Oruro double road, which is rapidly deteriorating as well, and the San Buenaventura-Ixiamas road, which they suddenly and unexpectedly abandoned by the end of March this year, with just 7 of the 114 km having been paved.
Road investments are clearly necessary in Bolivia, but the roads should last at least as long as it takes us to pay off the loans that financed them (typically 15 years). Otherwise they become both a debt trap and a death trap.
* Senior Researcher at INESAD. The viewpoints expressed in this blog are the responsibility of the author and may not reflect the viewpoints of all members of Fundación INESAD.
(1) Nina, 0. and Arduz, M. (2016) V- Vías camineras. En: Andersen, L. E., Branisa, B. and Canelas, S. eds. El ABC del desarrollo en Bolivia. Fundación INESAD: La Paz- Bolivia, pp. 243-252.