This blog article is unreferenced but is based on my personal and professional experiences and on interviews conducted for the production of various TV news pieces and documentaries. There are, of course, online references that can be found to confirm everything written in this blog article. I just didn’t have time to ‘go look for it’ and to include the links.
Since the early 1990s, Papua New Guinea’s road transport system has deteriorated to the point where many roads have become impassable.
In the 1980s in the Eastern Highlands and Morobe, roads were maintained on a regular basis. There was a grader, always on the road or within reach of the nearest village. There was no doubt road maintenance was serious government business.
Senior works officers now in management positions can attest to the fact that Papua New Guinea had, arguably, one of the best systems of road maintenance for a rugged mountainous, flood prone country.
We understood our road maintenance needs better than aid agencies who would come later to advise the government.
In the 1980s, sealed roads were a luxury. But the National Government back then, understood the importance of keeping unsealed roads open and maintained.
Before the 1990s, one could travel from Lae to Menyamya on a two wheel drive. In fact, nearly all government vehicles in Menyamya station, apart from the District Administrator’s vehicle and his deputy’s were two wheel drives.
Morobe Districts had district development authorities that performed the road maintenance function. It worked well.
In the highlands, the roads were so good, you could even from Goroka to Lae in a sedan.
The quality of road maintenance hinged on the effective job done by works teams who lived and worked along the highways. Today, along all major highways, you can still find remnants of strategically placed Works camps.
The Works Department not only built and maintained roads, they also built and maintained government housing in the towns and district centers and provided vehicles and fuel for government departments.
The works camps provided essential stopover and a point of communication for government vehicles that broke down along the highways.
According to government figures, PNG has about 30,000 kilometers of roads. This includes 9,000 kilometers of national roads and 21,000 kilometers that are supposed to be maintained by provincial and district governments.
In the 1990s, the Papua New Guinea Government, took advice from donor agencies and removed the construction and maintenance function of the Works Department. The department’s role was limited to regulation and supervision of private sector contractors.
While analysts and economists argue that the decision was good for Papua New Guinea, the results are largely negative.
The removal of the construction and maintenance function from the Works Department resulted in the increased dependence on the profit driven private sector. Funding to the works department was cut. The works camps were removed. Training of skilled personnel by the works department stopped. The cost of road maintenance rose and the efficiency dropped.
Regular road maintenance ended and the steady deterioration of provincial and district roads began.
Three provinces, Morobe, Madang and Eastern Highlands showed clearly the impact of the decision to downgrade the Works Department’s functions.
Along the Lae- Madang Highway, the removal of Works camps at Usino and Ono, meant that problematic road sections from Ramu, Usino to Tapo were not fixed when needed. The deterioration sometimes delayed travellers for days.
In outer lying districts, coffee production dropped as it became increasingly difficult to transport coffee bags to ports for export.
Corruption then crept into the procurement and regulatory system. Mushroom construction companies sprang up in the 1990s as many saw the opportunity to make quick money from government contracts.
Roads were left unfinished. Maintenance contracts were dishonored and ordinary Papua New Guineans suffered.
With a new government in place, the Works Minister, Michael Nali and Planning Minister, Richard Maru, appear to be speaking the same language. They want to see a revival of the Works Department and possibly the reestablishment of the works camps.
As Planning Minister, Maru is heading a review of donor funding agencies so make sure those who have expertise in particular fields are used more in their areas of expertise.