The 36-meter concrete bridge has improved access to health and education services as well as created new business opportunities for local people in central Sri Lanka.
Trekking down the mountainside, I was suddenly face to face with the majestic Huluganga waterfall; thousands of gallons of water per second cascading a dozen feet down, crashing over massive boulders into the Huluganga river below. Through a veil of mist shimmered a bright rainbow as the sunlight merged with the water droplets in the air.
Beautiful as it was, to the villagers living around the waterfall, a 1-hour drive down a windy country road northeast of the central city of Kandy, the river has caused untold anxiety, since, until recently, the only means of crossing the Huluganga river was a 42-meter-long bridge of dilapidated wooden planks. During the May through August rainy season, the swollen river would gush across the bridge, often ripping off decaying planks, leaving gaping holes and only the wire ropes to balance on.
Morgan Jennifer remembered feeling dizzy from seeing the swirling waters below when, heavily pregnant five years ago, she had to cross the bridge after visiting the Madolkale base hospital on the other side of the river from her home in Huluganga Village.
“I generally went to the medical center on this side of town for my monthly check-ups, but since it was time for me to do a scan, I had to go to the base hospital which is on the other side of town for which we have to cross the river,” said the now 25-year-old Jennifer, recalling the terrifying trip she faced a few years ago.
Many others faced the same short but perilous crossing, where tragically people have died in the past. It used to take villagers 30 minutes to make the 10-kilometer circuitous journey by bus to avoid the 15-minute walk over the old suspension bridge.
Since she had to get home to prepare the family lunch, Jennifer overcame her fear. However, for her second pregnancy, things were much easier for her since the Huluganga bridge had been constructed in the meantime.
At the request of the Pradeshiya Sabh local authority, ADB provided $230,000 under its ongoing Local Government Enhancement Sector Project to fund the construction of a solid concrete 36-meter-long bridge that both pedestrians and motor vehicles can use. Nearby villagers have been using it since April 2014, and it has improved access to health and education services.
Now, as well as walking across the bridge for just SLRs350, or around $2.5, sick people or pregnant women like Jennifer can travel by trishaw to the Madolkale base hospital for much less than the SLRs650, or $4.5, it used to be to take the circuitous route. Sumanawathi Manike, a midwife in the region, recalled a baby being born while the mother was taking the long route before the bridge was built, and shuddered at the thought of the unhygienic conditions when delivery took place.
Approximately 50 children cross the bridge daily to attend school, and at times they used to be marooned if the river’s water level had risen as a result of rain during the course of the day, making using the bridge impossible.
“I remember the day we had to wait a good two hours at the foot of the bridge unable to get back home, because the middle of the bridge was submerged with the gushing water,” said Rohan Malaka, a student at the Kosgama Maha Vidyalaya School. Whether rain or shine, today students do not worry about rushing home, but stay on after school hours to attend extra classes and sports activities at the school. “What a blessing this permanent bridge is to us” said Rohan’s mother saying she now has peace of mind knowing that her son can travel safely to school and back each day.
The bridge has also boosted business opportunities. “I am able to obtain a better price for my tea leaves selling to the tea collection truck, than selling to the near-by corner shop,” said Sirima Kumarihami of Kaludella Village near the river.
Because of the new bridge, trucks come to the villages in the area and collect directly from small-scale tea growers providing the farmers with access to bigger markets. The vehicles can also bring fertilizer and other critical goods for the small plantation owners.
“This is a service which I appreciate beyond words,” said Sirima, recalling the times she had to carry tea leaf sacks on her back and trek to the other side of town across the precarious bridge. Now with more time on her hands, Sirima has started a small cottage industry of packeting shunam—a paste to chew with betel leaves—which she sells to the nearby shops in Madulkele and Huluganga towns. With her increased income, Sirima extended her two-room house and even purchased an electricity connection to her home.
“Because of proper lighting at night, I can carry on doing the packeting of shunam late into the night and meet larger orders,” she said.