Path less travelledConstructing ropeways will help to get mountainous Nepal’s transport system off the ground
Rabindra Bahadur Singh
There are six directions in Nepal—north, south, east, west and up and down. The country’s development challenges and opportunities boil down to this cliché. One could lose sight of development if the ‘up’ and ‘down’ dimensions are not appreciated. The rugged topography, more than anything else, dictates what can and cannot be done in the country. It is even more so in transportation infrastructure. The rugged topography of the country poses the greatest challenge to conventional modes of transportation like roads and railways while presenting huge benefits to ropeways. Yet Nepal’s transport policy is obsessed with the roads and oblivious of ropeways.
When the Rana regime was overthrown in 1951, Nepal had a total road network of 376 km and a modern ropeway system of 22 km in length. Today, the country has more 20,000 km of strategic roads and more than 40,000 km of rural roads. On the other hand, ropeways are almost nonexistent, except for the 3-km-long Manakamana cable car and a few short-haul gravity goods ropeways.
Ropeways are still an important component of Switzerland’s multi-model transport system which has a topography fairly similar to ours. Ironically, ropeways have remained in our transport planners’ blind spot despite its obvious advantages in the context of our economy and topography.
Ropeways can handle large slopes and large differences in elevation. While a road or railroad needs switchbacks or tunnels, a ropeway travels straight up and down the fall line. Hence, two points in the hills which require four km of road and 15 km of railway can be linked with 1 km of ropeway. Likewise, it does not require bridges to cross river and ravines. Neither does it require drainage structures which often make road construction very expensive.
A conventional estimate shows that the construction of a ropeway is at least three times cheaper than building a road. It can also be installed eight times faster. Likewise, a ropeway is one of the most energy efficient transport systems. It runs on clean energy, electricity. This virtue is very important for Nepal which is sitting on a hydropower goldmine. The promotion of ropeways can reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and, thus save foreign exchange.
Likewise, ropeways are emission-free and they do not cause sound pollution. In contrast to roads and railways which destabilise the ground and leave behind horrible scars, ropeways have a very small foot print. An estimate shows that 10,012 cubic metres of soil have to be moved for every one km of a 4.5-metre-wide road in the hills in Nepal. A ropeway, on the other hand, requires little alternation of and altercation with the ground profile. Only the towers and stations occupy some space on the ground, and the intervening land between them can be used for cultivation or other purposes. Hence, unlike during road construction, it faces little land acquisition issues.
Ropeways can continue operating even during times of adverse weather and natural disasters that could bring surface transportation to a standstill like floods and landslides, mainly in the mountain areas. In 1993, after floods washed away parts of both the Tribhuvan and Prithvi highways and isolated Kathmandu, the now-dead Nepal Ropeway kept the Kathmandu Valley supplied with vegetables and food products for two weeks.
Having discussed the advantages of ropeways, it is important to note that they will not work everywhere. They have great advantages in mountainous areas, but they are not as beneficial in the plains. Likewise, experience has shown that ropeways are more appropriate for the short haul than the long haul.
Hence, there can be no denying that the country needs roads to serve as the main arteries. However, ropeways can be promoted with great benefits to link roads with the hinterlands deep in the mountains. They can reduce the overall financial and environmental cost of the development of transportation in the country.
Gravity goods ropeways
A rugged topography is the greatest hindrance to rural mobility. However, a simple contrivance can translate the hindrance into an opportunity for better mobility. The gravity goods ropeway (GGR) uses the undulation of the ground as a drive for its operation. It connects hill top settlements to roads and markets below with a set of wire ropes. Local produce slides downhill by its own weight on one rope while lighter consumer goods are simultaneously pulled uphill by a second rope. It can carry a 120-kg load downhill and a 40-kg load uphill in one operation. The travel time of a one-km-long GGR is less than five minutes. The cost of building a gravity ropeway is approximately Rs 2 million per kilometre depending on the location. The steeper the profile, the more effective is the GGR.
Nepal has made impressive progress in road development in recent decades, however, many settlements in the hinterlands of major highways and feeder roads are yet to be connected with the road network, leave aside settlements in the hinterlands of rural roads. Hence, the economy in rural settlements remains largely stagnant. The GGR can set the rural economy in motion by linking settlements with the road network. Similarly, the GGR can improve the economic viability of roads by increasing goods traffic to and from the settlements.
Practical Action Nepal has installed more than 25 ropeways in various parts of the country. An outcome assessment carried out by the organization at its project sites has shown that GGRs have slashed the time and cost of goods transportation by 70 percent. Likewise, the production of mainly cash crops has doubled within two years of GGRs being installed. GGRs don’t carry passengers, but they have relieved villagers of the drudgery of head loading and back loading their goods over very steep hills. They have been saving more than 100 person days of travel time per household per annum in the villages. The saved time and energy goes to farming. There are few interventions in Nepal which have touched rural lives so closely, and which can trigger a change of this magnitude in a short span of time.
Singh is infrastructure programme coordinator at Practical Action. Views expressed in this article are personal