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1 Jan, 2001

Asian Highway One Step Closer to Taking Shape

Regional road-transport officials have taken yet another step forward on the Asian Highway by clearing a first reading of the proposed Intergovernmental Agreement designed to harmonise the technical and legal aspects of this far-reaching infrastructure project.

With funding help from the Japanese government, representatives of 26 Asia-Pacific countries met in Bangkok early last November to discuss the first draft of the agreement, as prepared by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

Based on the European agreement on international traffic arteries, (AGR), the agreement pinpoints hundreds of towns and cities in 31 Asia-Pacific countries that will be linked by the 130,000 km stretch of the Asian Highway.

It specifies the technical details of the roads that will qualify for inclusion in the network as well as the legal processes by which states can accede or withdraw from the agreement or propose amendments to the routes in their respective territories.

Mr Barry Cable, chief of the transport and tourism division of ESCAP, described the meeting as the beginning of a long process in the build-up to the ESCAP annual ministerial session in Shanghai in 2004 when the agreement should be finalised for accession by the regional countries.

Over the next few months, the draft agreement will be further sharpened at four subregional seminars planned in ASEAN, South Asian, Northeast Asian and Central Asian regions. Thereafter, the Working Group that just met in Bangkok will meet again in the third quarter of 2003 to consider the draft prior to final submission.

First launched in 1959, the Asian Highway is designed to develop road transport infrastructure in Asia and link Asia with Europe, thereby promoting regional and international economic and social development, as well as opening up new potential for tourism and trade.

It is part of the comprehensive Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development (ALTID) project that includes the Trans-Asian Railway. ESCAP is working to integrate the highway and railway projects and further link them to inland waterways and maritime transport.

Road and rail transport is critical to the development of the region’s many landlocked countries like Laos, Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics.

Further integration with airports will give the region the huge advantages to tourism that come with upgraded transportation infrastructure, today a major deficiency in realising the tourism potential of many developing economies.

Said Mr Cable, “The coordinated development of the AH network is seen as being essential to cope with the increased potential for cross-border and transit-movements of goods and vehicles, particularly in the light of the ongoing process of globalisation.”

He said regional transport officials realise that there is an unprecedented level of demand for transport in the region and worried that inefficiencies in the transport system is unnecessarily adding cost.

In designing the Asian Highway network, the basic principle is to minimise the number of roads, primarily for cost reasons, but make maximum possible use of existing infrastructure. This allows countries to stay focussed on developing and upgrading what exists, rather than adding new roads.

There is huge amount of work to be done in terms of construction of missing links and bridges, upgrading of substandard sections and allocating adequate resources for maintenance of the AH routes.

Running parallel to the Highway project is the Trans-Asian Railway project, which has a much longer way to go but also has great potential for tourism, especially in view of the upmarket travellers that are attracted by luxury regional rail journeys like the Eastern and Oriental Express between Singapore and Thailand, and the Palace on Wheels in India.

All these road, rail and road-cum-rail routes are based on maximising the potential of existing and potential trade and tourism flows. Hence, they focus on capital-to-capital links, connections to main industrial and agricultural centres, major sea and river ports and major container terminals and depots.

One primary objective of the draft agreement for the Asian Highway is to ensure that the roads identified for development meet specific uniform standards and link up with each other at border crossings.

At the many preparatory meetings held to take the project forward, each AH member country has been asked to update the information on its national highways and submit country reports covering the general status of the national road network, including the Asian Highway routes, future plans for road development, an update of border crossing procedures and facilities, and promotional activities.

In several countries, the poor conditions of existing roads is a major problem. Key areas include India, Laos, Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Central Asian Republics.

To increase awareness of the importance of the Asian Highway, ESCAP has been providing information to highway administrations, road developers, financing institutions, road users, tourists, private sector parties and the general public. It has also developed an Asian Highway Database which presently includes details of the AH network within 26 member countries.

Once the draft agreement is implemented and states begin acceding to it, they will be required to facilitate recognition of the Asian Highway by all road users and the general public by installing AH route signs along the routes within their borders. New maps are also planned for production to replace some of the old ones.

Mr Cable said that while most of the countries will fund their own highway upgrading projects, some of the least developed within the ESCAP region will require outside help from groupings like the Asian Development Bank.

The Asian Highway website address is: http://www.unescap.org/tctd/ah/

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