Building bridges for development

Swiss development cooperation has been helping Nepal build trail bridges since 1960. By standardising technology, teaching the required engineering and planning skills, and introducing a system of responsibilities at all levels of government, Nepal is able to mass produce infrastructure that makes everyday life for its citizens much easier.

Women working on the construction of the Ghurswaghat bridge in Kanchanpur.

Women working on the construction of the Ghurswaghat bridge in Kanchanpur. Women must be adequately represented on the users' committees. © SDC/TBSU

A total of 10,000 bridges, Nepalese institutions in charge of the planning, construction and maintenance at local, regional and national level, and expertise taught at the country's engineering schools: these are the impressive results of Switzerland's decades-long development programme in Nepal. Aside from the continuity of Switzerland's engagement, this is largely thanks to the fact that a workable solution was found to one of Nepal's main challenges: a cost-effective way for people to cross valleys, particularly during the monsoon, in an economically weak, hilly and mountainous country criss-crossed with countless rivers. In addition to traditional rope bridges made from wood or other natural materials – often swept away during the seasonal floods – and a few chain bridges, the country has also been relying on its steel rope bridges from the early 20th century, procured by the Nepalese government from a Scottish company. These more modern bridges, however, are few and far between, and were only built at a handful of strategic locations.

From prototype to institutionalisation

It was towards the end of the 1950s that Swiss geologist Toni Hagen started to draw attention to the fact that Nepal urgently needed safe river crossing points for its people, setting out a list of priorities.

The entire population is overwhelmingly in favour of trail bridges. The government would therefore be well advised to make this their priority. No other development project at this low cost would directly benefit so many people and in such a short space of time. (. . .) Nepal can only survive if it improves the country's roads and builds simple trail bridges so that pack animals can be taken across.
Toni Hagen (1917–2003) Observations on certain aspects of economical and social development problems in Nepal. UN, New York 1959. Zit. nach Richard Gerster, Hängebrückenbau in Nepal, 1980, S.1.

An initial bridge construction programme funded by USAID became more concrete when engineer Hans Aschmann was hired by Helvetas as construction manager. The pioneering project was undertaken under difficult circumstances by Nepalese workers in 1960/61. The country was already manufacturing the required steel parts.

In 1964, the Nepalese government set up a separate department for trail bridges and introduced a systematic approach to bridge construction. In 1972, the department began to receive support from the SDC (known then as the Swiss Service for Technical Cooperation) – which was already involved in several projects in Nepal – via a programme aimed at transforming the country's somewhat uncoordinated construction of trail bridges into a more institutionalised and sustainable development intervention. This technical support was soon complemented with financial assistance for procuring materials and was implemented by Helvetas. Switzerland's partnership with Nepal, which lasted for more than five decades in the end, was also responsible for another type of bridge-building in addition to the visible construction work. This involved building capacities within the Nepalese administration – followed by the private sector and NGOs – in order to standardise construction, and thereby significantly cut costs, and to create manuals, procedures and criteria for selecting the location of new bridges, also in order to prevent construction projects based on political motivation rather than objective factors.

Centralised, local, federal

The initial centralised approach, whereby the Nepalese state also acted as the contractor, proved unsuitable for constructing bridges on a larger scale, particularly in places far away from the country's major trade routes. Building on the success of previous village initiatives that had also been supported earlier on, an additional community-based programme was launched in 1990, enabling local villages to build the bridges themselves. Under this programme, each local community had to create a users' committee and make a substantial contribution to the construction, working under professional guidance. In addition, the committees were required to ensure adequate representation of women and marginalised ethnic groups. This participatory approach also made each bridge project a veritable exercise in democracy.

People sitting in a circle on a hill.
Public audit: local people participate in the planning and building of the bridges. © SDC

During the 1990s, the number of new bridges being built rose rapidly to more than 200 a year. The next phase saw the local and centralised approaches being combined, responsibilities clarified, and the local people's voluntary labour replaced with paid work. In the aftermath of the armed conflict in Nepal (1996–2006), a new constitution and federal system were introduced. This meant re-defining the roles of the three government levels (federal, provincial and municipal) as a systemic framework for capacity-building within the new provincial and municipal authorities, and ensuring that the bridge construction programme would be in line with the new constitution.

Multiple benefits in everyday life

In Nepal, more than one million people use the trail bridges every day. The bridges improve living conditions for local people in a number of ways – travelling is quicker and safer, farmers have easier access to fields, firewood and fodder, more children go to school, and sick people are more likely to visit a medical facility. Markets are also more accessible, and the opening of new shops and other opportunities for earning money thanks to the new bridges helps generate more income. Expanding the country's road network, which Swiss development cooperation is continuing to support, does not make Nepal's connecting footpaths any less important. The Nepalese government has significantly increased its funding and Switzerland is maintaining its technical support. Two specialists salute Switzerland's closure of its successful bridge construction project at the end of 2023.

SDC in Nepal sheds part of its identity

Hats off

"After all these years, Nepal has the funds and capacities to continue on its own, to build the remaining 2,400 trail bridges that will complete the total envisaged network, and to maintain and – where necessary – replace existing and older trail bridges. Importantly, Nepal now has its own local experts.

On the other hand, providing support for the trail bridges has been part of the identity of Swiss development cooperation in Nepal. When we interviewed some of the stakeholders for this evaluation, the first thing most of them did was express their gratitude and appreciation for Switzerland's support in constructing Nepal's invaluable trail bridge network, which benefits so much of the country's population. Shedding part of one's identity is difficult. This makes the SDC's decision to exit the sector not just timely, but also courageous. Hats off."

Geert Engelsman, Mary Hobley: Cooperation Strategy Evaluation, Nepal 2018–22, Bern: SDC, 2022, p. vii.

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