Why we need good transport networks to support development

Published on Thursday, 20 October 2016

Published by Giovanni Verlini on Thursday, 20 October 2016

Local residents near the power plant.
Local residents near the power plant.

Legend has it that Amir Timur, the 14th century conqueror of much of Central Asia, ordered his men to hang pieces of meat in several locations of his empire. The place where the meat took the longest to decay turned out to be the Uzbek city of Samarkand, which was then chosen as capital.

No pieces of meat were left hanging in sight when I visited Uzbekistan last month, but as I disembarked from the plane at Tashkent airport I was struck by how dry the air is in the country, a sign that the sea is thousands of miles away. Indeed, Uzbekistan is a landlocked country in the middle of Central Asia. The Aral Sea, its largest freshwater body, shrunk considerably since the rivers that fed it were diverted to irrigate cotton fields.

Central Asia was once a region at the heart of a flourishing trade network for nearly 2,000 years, the Silk Road, but now finds itself isolated from the backbone of modern international commerce – sea trade. At the same time, its road and railway networks, which largely date back to Soviet times, are undersized and need upgrading.

Socio-economic development remains a challenge under the best of circumstances, but it becomes virtually impossible without reliable transport network sustaining trade. Whenever the exchange of people, goods, and services is hampered, communities, villages, and countries become isolated, and their economies go into a steady decline.

I have been familiar with this concept for years, having read it in countless articles and books, but I have never understood what it really meant until I visited Uzbekistan’s Talimarjan power plant. This is a $1.2 billion—of which ADB is providing $350 million—project to expand generation capacity at the plant. Two gas-fired combined cycle units are set to add 880 megawatts to the grid in a part of the country that is rich in hydrocarbon resources but short in power generation capacity.

Everything about this project makes sense: there’s a clear business case, the Shortan gas field supplying the plant is nearby, the finance secured, and the contracting companies available. This should be a no-brainer. Yet, there was a stumbling block in the project implementation – an easy way to transport components to the site.

These components were manufactured in places as far away as the United States, the Republic of Korea, Italy, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Kingdom. For example, the units’ 400-metric ton turbines—a weight equivalent to 30 double-decker buses—travelled 16,400 km from Japan. They left Kobe on a container ship that eventually docked at Iliyvchesk, Ukraine. From there they were transported through the Caucasus and across the Caspian Sea, reaching the port of Kuryk, Kazakhstan. The journey continued overland on a specially designed heavy-duty trailer with 48 axels and 1,056 tires moving at 5 km/h. Altogether it took them over a year to reach the Talimarjan power plant.

Distance, remote location, and lack of modern transport infrastructure, however, were not the only problem. The journey would have been much faster had it not been for lengthy bureaucratic delays at international borders.

These constraints, of course, are well known and the object of much attention. The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program has been working since 2002 on financing the construction of a strong transportation network that links countries in the region to each other and with the rest of the world, as well as on improving trade facilitation and border procedures. As of 2015, CAREC had implemented 166 projects worth around $27.7 billion. The work goes on, but the job is massive.

Standing in front of this behemoth power plant with its four towering chimneys, you can see with your own eyes why development is no easy feat. There are so many pieces to this giant puzzle: manpower, finance, knowledge, natural resources, political will, expertise, and many more. So much that needs to fall in place at the right time for a project like this to progress. The 400-metric ton turbines that travelled around the world to reach a remote part of Central Asia are just the largest, and heaviest, pieces of the puzzle. They stand as a reminder of the fact that development is a monumental task, and that even just reaching the starting line sometimes is a struggle.

Ironically, the Silk Road, flourished for centuries thanks to international trade, now finds itself at the margins of it. If you need evidence of the importance of trade and transport for development, look no further than the Talimarjan power plant. The work and dedication of those involved in the project turned a mission impossible into a success story. But it should have not been so hard for them. Today more than ever, Central Asia needs a 21st century Silk Road.