THE Government of Papua New Guinea outlined an ambitious plan to nearly double the size of the national road network under the Medium-Term Development Plan 2018-2022 with aims of spurring economic growth and social service delivery.
However, in a recently published joint analysis of these plans in the international scientific journal Plos One, researchers from James Cook University, the University of Papua New Guinea and the Wildlife Conservation Society PNG found the plan has not adequately considered the environmental and socio-economic impacts of these proposed roads.
Instead, they note that a massive expansion of the road network could lead to a lose-lose situation where road expansion results in logging companies rapidly deforesting the country causing substantial biodiversity and carbon stock loss while reducing the long-term ability of rural communities to sustain their livelihoods.
Meanwhile, ongoing high maintenance costs of the proposed roads mean many would become rapidly unusable, as is currently the case for nearly two-thirds of national roads.
In the study, the scientists assessed the road building plans using fine-scale biophysical and environmental data. They identified numerous environmental and socioeconomic risks associated with these projects.
Dr Mason Campbell, one of the leading researchers on the project noted “the current plans would result in significant forest loss, dissection of critical biodiversity habitats, and loss of forest connectivity across large expanses of the country”.
If this were to occur he says there would be “severe biodiversity impacts along with loss of services to communities”.
Many planned roads would, for instance, traverse rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands, creating new deforestation hotspots via rapid expansion of logging, mining, and oil-palm plantations. This outcome would contradict Papua New Guinea’s international commitments to promote low-carbon development and forest conservation for climate-change mitigation.
The study also suggests that several planned road segments in steep and high-rainfall terrain, would lead to very high risks of localised flooding and landslides; damaging both the road itself and potentially threatening lives.
Moreover, ongoing management of these issues would be extremely expensive in terms of construction and maintenance costs. This would create unanticipated economic challenges and worsen PNG’s current public debt problem.
Perhaps most worrying of the proposed projects is the multiple roads planned for the sparsely populated Western Province which, if constructed as planned, would result in the dissection of carbon rich peatlands. The TheEpo-Kikori “missing link” and the Western Province roads would open the Kamula Doso forest region; one of the largest remaining intact forests in the world and a strong candidate for future funding under the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) scheme.
Road development in these peatlands would release large quantities of stored carbon into the atmosphere and increase the vulnerability of catastrophic peat fires such as those which regularly occur in neighboring Indonesia, where extreme degradation of air quality may have killed as many as 90,000 people and caused tens of billions of dollars damage to the economy in 2015 alone.
Currently, nearly two-thirds of Papua New Guinea’s road network is in very poor condition. In addition, many places that do not already have access to a road are located where mountainous terrain or seasonal flooding makes building a road and keeping it open both technologically challenging and very expensive.
This suggests funding may be better spent on road restoration than costly new road developments. The expansion of PNG’s road network in the longer term is however, both necessary and likely inevitable.
However, careful planning and enforcement of developmental and legislative requirements both during and post road construction are the only means by which the Government can prevent significant and ongoing deleterious socio-economic and environmental impacts.
We know this as elsewhere in the tropics, including in neighbouring Indonesia, road developments have been found to drive rapid and often illegal deforestation, increase the risk of landslides, cause soil and water pollution, increase the prevalence of human diseases and result in “debt-traps” through both interest rate repayments on the project itself and the unanticipated and substantial long-term maintenance costs.
Papua New Guinea should look upon the process of expanding its relatively undeveloped road network as an opportunity to learn from other countries mistakes and to lead the world in sustainable development.
The Government, through its National Strategy for Responsible Sustainable Development (Stars) has committed PNG to a low carbon green growth pathway, in line with the targets of Vision 2050. Through the PNG National REDD Strategy, the Government also specifically aims at reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and enhancing forest carbon stocks.
There is a great potential to retain large areas of intact rainforest if smart road infrastructure prioritisation strategies are developed and implemented. This in turn would result insignificantly improved socioeconomic outcomes.
However, the study raises severe concerns that the road development proposals in their current format will instead lead to greater financial, environmental and social burdens with only the promise of vague and ethereal future riches.
• Story and pictures supplied by WCS PNG.