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Roads Overview

Being landlocked, Bhutan is fully dependent on its road network for transportation. Considering the country’s mountainous terrain, provision of road services is extremely difficult and costly. Nevertheless, major investments until now have been channeled into road and bridge infrastructure due to the fact that the national security and socio-economic development of the country largely depends on a safe, efficient and reliable road network. The further development of the road network as an important part of the expansion of strategic infrastructure program will effectively contribute to the reduction of poverty, an overarching goal of the 10th five-year plan. This is evident from a series of studies, conducted within the country. In the Vulnerability Assessment and Mapping Study 2005, 37% of the most vulnerable Gewogs indicated that the improvement of road accessibility would reduce food insecurity in their Gewogs. Participatory Policy Impact Assessment (PPIA) of Rural Roads on Rural Poverty, conducted by the GNH Commission, also showed a similar result. Generally, roads will help integrate rural communities and dispersed regions to the national economy and enjoy a greater share and benefits of development. A well connected national highway and road system interlinked with rural feeder and farm roads would greatly help reduce rural and regional isolation, expand rural access to social services and urban/export markets and create conditions required to promote rural industrialization and non-farm enterprises. Additionally, the national road and transport connection between regional growth centers, national cities and the various small and medium towns would facilitate growth and development of urban areas and commercial hubs around the country.

Currently, there are 1634.3 km of expressway and national highways, 481.2 km of district roads, 809.2 km of feeder roads, 150.6 km of urban roads, 716.9 km of farm roads and 559.6 km of forest roads and 440 suspension bridges and rudimentary mule-tracks across the country. Despite these achievements, the existing roads, rural road network in particular, still remains inadequate in terms of both connectivity and coverage. The Population and Housing Census (PHCB) 2005 indicates that 9.7% of the population live more than 6 hours away from the nearest motor road and that the rural households in six districts comprise about 73% of this percentage. It is also a matter of concern that the country is dependent on a single East-West national highway running through the northern part of the country. The absence of such an alternative highway running through the south has constrained travel from one part of the country to the other. 

Furthermore, transportation on the existing national highways is highly inefficient, lengthy and susceptible to blocks due to natural calamities and heavy snowfalls or landslides. Owing to the difficult topography and resource constraints, roads are generally built following land contours with the minimum number of bridges as possible. Hence, the roads in general are narrow with sharp curves and steep gradients and prone to accidents. Typically, road distances are about two and half times the straight-line distance between two points. Most of the existing highways and bridges were also constructed at a time when the flow of traffic and load factor was very low. 

In view of the above, in the 10th FYP, priority has been given to the construction of the southern east-west highway, based on the decision of the 82nd session of the National Assembly and also in view of the Vision 2020 milestone to complete the construction of the second transnational highway by 2017. Moreover, in order to ensure safety, reliability and efficiency, importance will also be given to the construction and improvement of road network across the country. 

Opportunities and Challenges

For major investment projects such as roads and bridges, comprehensive front-end planning is a pre-requisite for delivering successful projects. Inherent in the prevailing system is the lack of planning and time for detailed pre-construction studies such as, alignment selection, social impact assessment, environmental and geological studies, preliminary/detail survey, design and tendering that greatly hinder the quality and progress of new road constructions. On the other hand, road constructions have increased dramatically over the years. Therefore, it is necessary to conduct survey and design works related to preconstruction studies/investigations for new roads well in advance.

The planning and surveying of new roads are significantly hindered by non-availability of appropriate maps on required scale. The topographical maps currently available in the country are both old and of 1:50,000 scale, which are difficult and tedious to use for assessing road alignments, thus leading to erroneous decisions. To carry out planning, surveying, and designing of roads in an efficient and reliable manner, it is desirable to have latest topographical maps of at least 1:10,000 scale (maps of lower scale preferred) and aerial photographs. 

There is an acute shortage of qualified and trained engineers in the areas such as structural engineering, engineering geology, environment management, survey & design, contract management, quality control etc. The overall institutional capacity of the sector to meet the increasing demand for technical studies and services needs to be studied through the review of the existing manpower.

The sector’s policy of phasing itself out from direct involvement in construction works and concentrating increasingly on design, estimates and regulatory functions is constrained by the limited capacity of the private construction firms in the country. There are only few Class ‘A’ and Class ‘B’ contractors, leading to limited and unprofessional competition in the construction sector. As a result, low quality of work, budget over-runs and inability to finish the work within the specified time are common.

While there is an increasingly high demand for expansion of the country’s road network, maintenance and upkeep of the existing road infrastructures to desired level of standards and serviceability has always been a challenging task, particularly in terms of appropriate technology and resources which are in acute scarcity. In the sector’s strive to develop a road management system to determine priorities for routine and periodic maintenance treatments, the TIMS software for strategic and maintenance planning has been acquired but its full utility has not been achieved due to lack of trained personnel. The Road Planning and Management Strengthening Project (ADB TA No. 3470-BHU) has recommended the establishment of a comprehensive asset management system for monitoring and evaluating road development programs.
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