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Engineers are turning roads into 'green' infrastructure with game-changing benefits: 'Once there is a road, there is everything'

"It is often very non-glorious things that make the difference."

"It is often very non-glorious things that make the difference."

Photo Credit: iStock

In many developing countries, unpaved roads are a liability, as they can quickly be made unusable by rain. But one group of engineers has figured out how to turn these roads from a liability to an asset.

A Dutch consulting firm called MetaMeta has been teaching people around the world about the concept of "Green Roads for Water," in which roads are designed or retrofitted to capture water and divert it for agricultural use.

Dutch geographer Frank Van Steenbergen arrived at the "Green Roads for Water" concept while working on irrigation projects in Pakistan in the 1990s. There, he saw and was inspired by "gabarbands," an ancient technique used by farmers to capture monsoon water using stone terraces. 

Today, his company's techniques have spread to countries all across the world, including Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Somaliland, Tajikistan, Nepal, and Bolivia.

The techniques themselves are simple — engineers create earthen ridges called crossbars to guide water off the road and toward irrigation ditches. MetaMeta also extols the benefits of "borrow pits," artificial ponds left after gravel excavation that can be repurposed to store rainwater for the dry seasons.

The approach solves two problems at once: saving the roads from the effects of the water and providing crops with much-needed resources.

"It is often very non-glorious things that make the difference," Van Steenbergen said.

The Green Roads movement is happily coinciding with a sharp uptick of road building in developing countries — within the next couple of decades, tens of millions of miles of unpaved roads may be created. 

In Nepal, thousands of road miles have been constructed since 2015. "Once there is a road, there is everything," said Saroj Yakami, an engineer who is leading the Green Roads movement in Nepal. "You can go to the hospital easily. You can get government services quickly. You can take your produce to the market."

MetaMeta's work has even caught the attention of the World Bank, which hired the company in 2021 to compile a set of guidelines and case studies about the practice.

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