8:47am , Tuesday 6th December 2022

Slow death of a transport lifeline in Yemen

21 November 2022

Jameel Al-Jadabi
On top of a hill west of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, lie the graves of 60 Chinese specialists workers who lost their lives amidst harsh weather conditions as they worked on the first road constructed in the early sixties by the Chinese government in Yemen.

The construction of the 231 Km road began in February 1959, and ended in January 1962, and it became the lifeline connecting most residents in the northern governorates to the Port of Al-Hodeida. However, that road has been badly damaged due to erosion, lack of maintenance, war and the heavy weights of passing cargo trucks.

The cargo trucks excessive weight has played a key role in damaging the road as truck drivers fail to adhere to the truck weight limits as set by law. A report on the Yemeni Road Asset Management Project, published by the World Bank in 2012, stated that the lack of control over the weight of truckloads accelerates the deterioration of road conditions, adding that the condition of the Sanaa – Al-Hodeida Road would not have deteriorated this much had there been regular maintenance and excess load controls.

The World Bank’s report also stated that government policies allowed the transportation of truckloads which exceeded the legal limits by 5 tons, and that fuel trucks were not fined for their excessive weights, while those detained for violations were released and allowed to pass through after paying a fine.

Officials at the Roads Corporation estimate that the weight of truckloads may reach double the legal limit, adding that the load weight of a truck passing through the Sanaa – Al-Hodeida Road may equal the weight of two trucks passing through a road outside Yemen.

Potholed Roads and Increased Traffic Accidents
In 2019, reconstruction work on 22 Km stretch of the Sanaa – Al-Hodeida Road was hailed as a model of success by the United Nations Office for Project Services and the World Bank (International Development Association IDA). However, surface cracks in the road at the western entrance to Sanaa soon returned.

Contrary to what had been planned, the project failed to extend the life span of the damaged road, and improve the traffic safety even for a few months as potholes reappeared on the road which already suffered from the heavy traffic of over 10 thousand vehicles daily, including trucks carrying cargo and humanitarian aid.

Through the division for complaints and inquiries in the UN Office for Project Services UNOPS, we received an unsigned reply via a WhatsApp number that stated that their reconstruction of the road was carried out correctly, “but cannot prevent any damage resulting from axle overload as allowed by the law,” emphasizing the importance of adhering to the legal weight limitations, “or risking the failure of any repairs and the gradual deterioration of the road to its former state,” adding that the excessive weight of vehicles could damage not only the road’s surface but also the pavements on either side.

In the region of Al-Khusma, 7 Km from Sanaa, potholes fill the surface of the main road for 50 meters. Locals say that the potholes soon reappear after maintenance work. While working on this investigation in November 2021, a man and child were injured in a traffic accident caused by the damaged road.

Essam Mohammad, owner of a car repair shop in the area, says “traffic accidents in Al-Khusma have increased due to the damaged state of the road. Cars suddenly swerve as most drivers attempt to avoid the potholes.”

Essam describes a recent accident saying: “a child was standing on the dirt side of the road waiting for cars to pass in order for him to cross the street to the other side, when a moving vehicle almost took his life as it swerved towards him in an attempt to avoid one of the potholes.”

In an individual effort to solve the problem, Essam himself tried to cover the potholes using a mixture of sand and used car oil, hoping that the filling would endure for a decent amount of time and decrease the number of traffic accidents.

Colonel Mohammad Al-Mandi, Head of the Bani Matar Traffic Directorate in Sanaa, estimates that the number of traffic accidents in his directorate is between 2 – 5 accidents daily.

Head of the traffic police says that “Cargo trucks carry loads that weigh double the amount allowed by the law, which may cause some trucks to overturn in the middle of the road and halt the movement of traffic for a whole day.”

In the district of Manakha, 80 Km from Sanaa, the Director of the Road Maintenance Center, Fawwaz Omaissi, says that “truck overloads are the cause of 80% of the damage caused to roads. After we reconstruct a part of the road and move on to another, the damages we tried to fix soon reappear in the first repaired section,” making the work of our maintenance team merely a process of constant “road revival.”

Omaissi estimates that the number of overloaded trucks passing through ranges between 60 – 100 trucks daily, adding that “oil tankers carry loads reaching 120,000 liters which is double the legal load of 60,000 liters only.”

He also stated that the excessive weights of trucks have caused the destruction of the road’s surface and increased the number of potholes resulting in a “ramshackle road” which “could collapse completely if not repaired promptly.” Omaissi continues, “Three years ago, only 5 meters of the whole road would require reconstruction, but in some areas today, up to 100 meters may be in dire need of repair.”

On the other hand, spokesperson for the Yemen Petroleum Company in Sanaa, Essam Al-Mutawakkel said that “oil tankers carry loads within the legal weight limits,” adding that the number of oil trucks using the Sanaa – Al-Hodeida road is extremely limited due to port closures and ship seizures.

A Weightless Weight Law
Yemen’s law on axle weights and vehicle dimensions sets a truckload weight limit at 20 tons for double axle trucks, 28 tons for 3 axle trucks, 33 tons for double axle trucks with a single axle trailer, 41 tons for 4 axle trucks and 45 tons for trucks with 5 axles or more.

The law was promulgated in 1994, but remained ineffective until the preparation of this report, despite the fact that when the Houthi led government in Sanaa took office in 2016, it promised to “activate the law on axle weights and vehicle dimensions, and reactivate operations in existing axle weighing stations.”

The law gave the responsibility of managing axle weighing stations and truck traffic violations to a committee of representatives from the Roads Corporation and the Ministries of Interior, Transport and Finance.

In addition, the law allowed “reconciliation” with violators if they paid a reduced fine which amounts up to half the legal fine. This created a loophole in the system since the value of the fines was not commensurate with the volume of road damages caused due to excessive truck weights.

One year after the law was promulgated, Law (no. 22 of 1995) was issued in May of 1995, announcing the establishment of a Roads Maintenance Fund and the imposition of a half Yemeni Riyal, on every liter of petrol sold as a fund subsidy.

This law also remained ineffective for a whole year after it was promulgated, until it was approved by the Yemeni Parliament on December 7th, 1996. In accordance with this law, representatives from five other ministries were added to the Fund’s supervising committee and they are the Ministries of Public Works and Housing, Planning and International Cooperation, Local Administration, Industry and Trade and lastly, the Ministry of Oil and Minerals.

However, 38 days after its issuance, the law was amended in January 1997, appointing the Prime Minister as a supervisor of the Fund to replace the Minister of Public Works and Housing.

Three years later, a new law was promulgated with amendments that cancelled all previous amendments and reinstated the Minister of Public Works and Housing as a supervisory entity of the Fund to replace the Prime Minister.

According to data from the Roads Maintenance Fund, the new law also raised road taxation from a half Yemeni Riyal per liter of petrol to 5% of the cost of a liter. This was an attempt to make up for the lack of resources for the Fund, in light of the flimsy traffic penalties and fees and also as an attempt to commensurate damages caused by the excessive truck weights and the cost of road maintenance. Still, the law remained ineffective for another 12 years until 2012.

The partial implementation of the Fund’s Law (no. 27 of 2000) did not last long, as there were signs of an internal government conflict regarding fund disbursement authorization, where members of the fund’s supervising committee accused the Ministry of Finance of “irregular supply and the disbursement of funds without approval and for purposes unrelated to the Fund’s objectives.”

Ten years later, and on February 18th, 2009, Decree (no. 15 of 2009) was issued, reinstating the Prime Minister as a supervisor of the Fund in his capacity as Head of the Supreme Council for Roads, a newly established administrative entity which appointed ministry representatives in place of ministers.

A Lost Cause
Engineer Mohammad Al-Hukaimi, Head of the Asphalt Department in the Roads Corporation, says that the problem lies in the lack of cooperation by concerned entities for the real and practical implementation of the axle weight law. In reference to the volume of damages to the Sanaa – Al-Hudeidah Road due to excessive weights, Al-Hukaimi says that two roads have been adversely affected; “the Sanaa – Al-Hodeida Road and the Dhamar – Al-Husseiniah Road,” adding that the problem of truck overloads and excessive weights has persisted since the late eighties.

In his colloquial accent he states: “The more we reconstruct, the more damages reappear, all on the road to Al-Hudeidah, where overloaded trucks continue their road destruction.” Al-Hukaimi also criticized the absence of guidance rules or action to raise public awareness. “The problem is the prevailing ‘let someone else do it’ attitude.”

After reconstruction and maintenance work, Al-Hukaimi says that the excessive weight puts a lot of pressure on the road leading to cracks, ruptures or even collapse, lessening the road’s expected life span from 10 years to 1 or 2 years at times.”

“It’s really a lost cause,” he adds as he empties the black gravel contents of a bottle on his desk before sending them off for lab testing. “We are supposed to work as a team, complementing each other’s efforts and responsibilities.”

He states that “damages due to exceeding the permitted axle weights cost a lot and reconstruction costs usually come at the expense of other needed projects.”

In the meantime, 120 workers divided into two teams continue the maintenance work on the road which is considered the lifeline for food, medicine and fuel supplies for the residents of Sanaa and nearby governorates. Yemen after March 2015, witnessed continued violent clashes dividing the country between a Houthi led government in Sanaa, and an internationally recognized government in Aden, and a foreign military intervention.

Road Surface Damages
Jordan’s Road Maintenance Manual, issued in 2008, lists 10 types of damages that appear on the surface of roads due to excess axle weights and heavy traffic. The manual’s documenting images show damages identical to those on the Sanaa – Al-Hodeida Road, such as the ‘Masajid’ stretch of the road, extending almost 10 Km.

Crocodile cracking topped the list of similar damages, followed by tearing then rutting, grading, creeping, buckling and pavement cracking.

Data from the Ministry of Transport show an increase in the volume of cargo truck traffic in Sanaa, from 23,000 trucks in August 2020, to 44,000 trucks during the same month the following year. In Al-Hodeida, traffic increased from 16,000 to 18,000 trucks.

In addition, annual statistics show a rise in the volume of cargo truck traffic in Sanaa, from 135,000 trucks in 2019, to 400,000 trucks in 2020. Al-Hodeida witnessed a rise from 146,000 to 224,000 trucks.

Ground Transportation Map of Cargo Truck Routes in August 2021
Unfulfilled Government Promises to Activate the Law
The government of Sanaa announced that it intended to activate the law of excess axle weight stations, and followed its announcement by several official statements the last of which was given on October 25th, 2021, after the joint meeting of the Minister of Industry and Trade and the Minister of Public Works and Highways, who emphasized the importance of coordination between the two ministries in order to implement the law and activate axle weighing stations.

On September 2nd, 2019, Mohammad Quhaim, Acting Governor of Al-Hodeida, held a meeting with governorate officials to discuss the mechanisms needed to implement the law. In August 2021, Head of the Ground Transportation Commission, Waleed Al-Wadei, reiterated the importance of activating the law, while a similar statement was given by the Minister of Transport on June 27th, 2021.

In 2020, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance of the Houthi led government, emphasized the importance of cooperation to expedite the activation of the law and the establishment of axle weighing stations.

In other statements, the government promised to penalize violators of legal weight limits, but their promises were never fulfilled as no real action was taken to control the damages caused by the wheels of overloaded trucks on the Sanaa – Al-Hodeida Road.

In February, 2021, Abdulla Al-Qiri, of the Road Maintenance Fund, announced that the Fund intends to establish 22 weighing stations along the country’s main roads. Another of many such promises that never saw the light of day.

In a specialized seminar on this topic, the Director of Public Works in Al-Hodeida, Hameed Sharaf, announced the complete destruction of the axle station on Route 16 Km, due to airstrikes.

However, the situation was not much better even before the crisis worsened and the war broke out in 2015 disrupting weighing stations. In an interview he gave in 2013, Vice President of Al-Hodeida station, Adel Al-Arshi, said: “these stations were built back in the eighties in good locations, but the population increase required the expansion of road networks and the weighing stations became cramped in residential areas making them ineffective.”

Statistics from 4 weighing stations in Taiz and Al-Hodeida in 2012 show that 6,000 out of 100,000 passing trucks were fined for violating legal weight limits.

Only one weighing station currently operates in the Bajil District (120 Km from Sanaa) but this station operates under the Zakat Commission not the axle weight law.

We have sent a request for comment to the Road Maintenance Fund and the Ministries of Public Works, Transport and Finance, asking why axle weighing stations have not yet been activated. We have not yet received a response in light of the overlapping powers and the unofficial mutual recriminations of the concerned entities in Yemen.