How The New Silk Road Is Saving Lives
I travel to emerging markets around Asia and report on what I find. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
The new Western Europe-Western China Highway just before it officially opens.
The first time I traveled the 300 kilometer expanse between Almaty, Kazakhstan’s cultural capital, and the Khorgos development area on the border with China, the trip took seven hours — seven hours of slowly rumbling down an old, pothole-laden two lane Soviet road. There was nothing resembling a shoulder — the road sides having been corroded away by decades of use and a lack of repair — and there was no semblance of painted lines or anything to visually separate the lanes. Cars swerved from one side of the road to the other, crossing into oncoming traffic as though avoiding potholes is more of a priority than avoiding head-on collisions. Drivers appear to be unimpeded by road rules or a traffic police force that is often more interested in extracting bribes than preventing accidents. That was in May of 2015, a time when the continent-traversing Western Europe-Western China Highway was little more than some piles of dirt and a dream.
According to a recent report by the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), a Washington DC think tank, entitled Safety on the New Silk Road, Kazakhstan loses upwards of $9 billion — or nearly 4% of its GDP — each year due to road accidents. Only 3% of the country’s roadways meet internationally recognized highest standards, while 17% fall below the minimum. Of the 13,000 kilometers of highway that the CSIS investigated, over three-quarters were undivided two-lane roads, more than half were not paved in asphalt, and 45% were considered to be in bad condition — all of which increases the risk of accidents. Backing up the findings of the CSIS, of the 52 countries that the World Health Organization analyzed in their study on global road safety, Kazakhstan ranked dead last. Meanwhile, the number of cars on Kazakh roadways have more than doubled in the past ten years.
As the CSIS report pointed out, road accidents are an under-recognized cause of death and injury around the world, with more people dying in cars than from malaria or HIV each year. This sudden loss of income providers not only plunges families into poverty and taxes healthcare systems but also shaves an estimated 2 to 5% off of annual global GDP, making the issue not only personal but economic as well. The CSIS found that most of these automobile accidents are due to poor infrastructure and, put simply, poor driving — both of which are typical in emerging markets, where the rate of traffic accidents are over twice as high than in high-income countries. To put it more succinctly, road accidents are the 24th leading cause of death in Western Europe; in Central Asia, they rank 6th.
Riding down the yet unopened Western Europe-Western China Highway on the wrong side of the road. Yes, Kazakhstan’s traffic problems are not related to poor infrastructure alone.
Kazakhstan has been rising to become a key transit hub in the heart of the Eurasian landmass. With China to the east, Europe to the west, Russia to the north, and South Asia and Iran to the south, the country has positioned itself as a crossroads between regions, cultures, economies, and political systems. Seeing transportation as a way to diversify its economy away from almost total reliance on natural resource exports, Kazakhstan has been on a tear to improve its infrastructure and logistical capabilities. Under the auspices of the president’s $9 billion Nurly Zhol initiative, which seeks to revitalize the country through infrastructure improvements, major projects like Khorgos Gateway — a major dry port on the border with China — the enhancement of the Aktau seaport on the Caspian coast, the new Astana logistics center, along with thousands of kilometers of upgraded rail and road routes have been covering Kazakhstan.
Improving transportation in Kazakhstan is also of international interest, with the United Nations’ Asian Highway Network (AHN), the Asian Development Bank’s Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program, the World Bank, along with China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) jumping in to improve Kazakhstan’s roadways, a key component of the multinational mega-project known as the New Silk Road.
And there have been results. The old Russian road that I first traveled on in the spring of 2015 had been rendered obsolete by a wide, fully modern, divided four-lane thoroughfare. There are no cars coming at you head on as they try to avoid potholes; faster and slower vehicles can use their respective lanes; incoming and outgoing traffic use on and off ramps rather than barging in from obscure side roads and roadside villages.
When fully completed, this new highway will extend for 8,445 kilometers, all the way from the Yellow Sea coast of China through Kazakhstan to St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea. Dubbed the “construction of the century” by Kazakh President Nazarbayev, the road is officially called the Western Europe-Western China (WE-WC) Expressway. Although not yet officially opened, cars are currently driving on the highway between Almaty and the Chinese border at Khorgos. It is estimated that this roadway will double Kazakhstan’s transport capacity by 2020 and boost it tenfold by 2050, improving transportation and making the roads safer for nearly half of the country’s population.
Through improving transportation infrastructure for direct economic reasons, road safety is often inherently improved, which has a cyclical, positive impact on local, regional, and global economies.