A new crossing built by the Royal Engineers, which fords one of southern Helmand's largest waterways, has proven to be a major success with commuters, providing a lifeline to rural communities.
The bridge joins outlying villages of a desert area to a tarmacked road running all the way from Lashkar Gah to the western edge of Shin Kalay, Nad ‘Ali.
Before the structure, known as the ‘friendship bridge’, was erected, farmers had to travel up to ten kilometres to the nearest crossing point capable of supporting a vehicle or livestock in order to get their produce to the district centres.
The journey into the nearest market is now much quicker, but most importantly much safer. The original route through the desert was notorious for roadside bombs and insurgent activity, but the new road and regular police checkpoints have made the journey less dangerous.
Asadullah, a farmer from Marjah who regularly travels to Nad ‘Ali on his tractor, said:
The bridge is very good; before we had to use the small footbridge that would only just support motorcycles, but now I can use my tractor.
It is much safer and quicker now; we were scared to use the desert way before but now we can cross this bridge which is very close.
Guarding the route are a series of checkpoints manned by the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) who stop and search anyone they think may be suspicious. An ANCOP officer said:
We try and build a good relationship with the locals as they bring us information about the insurgents.
This bridge is important for the villages, if someone is ill or sick they can move quickly to the health clinics.
Freedom of movement to and from the district centres in this part of Helmand is essential for the development of the local economy, but also the provision of social services such as health and education. The friendship bridge forms part of a wider initiative to develop the infrastructure across the whole of the province.
Helmand’s main highway is also experiencing record levels of traffic flow, leading to the emergence of new businesses looking to take advantage of the improved security.
The main tarmacked road linking the key market town of Lashkar Gah with the rest of Afghanistan, Highway 601, is experiencing a rise in small shops and other ventures, all cashing in on the surge in passing trade.
A string of new Afghan National Police (ANP) checkpoints have ensured that the way is now more secure from insurgent activity and roadside bombs.
Manakan Aguldie has opened a shop at the side of the route, which is being dubbed ‘the yellow brick road’, selling bread, pistachio nuts and energy drinks as well as mobile phones and SIM cards. He said:
Sometimes people stop to buy phone cards, others stop for my cake or cigarettes. The improved security has made it safer for me to sell my goods here.
As well as the huge commercial convoys rumbling past his shop, there are hundreds of agricultural vehicles transporting livestock and crops, essential for the survival of the rural farming communities.
Central to the continued economic and social development in the area is the security provided by the ANP. Mohammed Abdul Sattar Khan, First Lieutenant of the 2nd Kandak (police unit), who controls Checkpoint Attal, said:
Day by day the ANP are improving, as is the security situation. My men have a good relationship with the locals.
Highway 601 and other recently completed roads such as Route Trident form part of a wider initiative to develop the infrastructure network between the major towns and outlying communities.