Belt and Road Initiative
Diego Martin Vehicular Overpass. Photo courtesy Ministry of Works and Transport.

Blighted boom: Substandard projects scar Belt and Road Initiative across nations

The gleaming Diego Martin Vehicular Overpass in Trinidad and Tobago stood in stark contrast to the shadows cast by substandard Chinese construction projects creeping across Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries.

These infamous “Tofu-Dreg” projects, as they’re dubbed in China, reached a new level of alarming on December 24, 2023, when a chunk of Bangkok’s Pink Line monorail rail crashed down, narrowly missing disaster. This incident, along with countless others, raises critical questions about the quality and safety of BRI infrastructure projects worldwide.

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The Diego Martin Vehicular Overpass

The National Infrastructure Development Company Limited (NIDCO) partnered with China Railway Construction (Caribbean) Company Limited (CRCCL) and Junior Sammy Contractors Limited (JSCL) to deliver the TT$190 million (US$27,926,048.00) Diego Martin Vehicular Overpass (DMVO) project.

This project aims to improve traffic flow between the Diego Martin Highway and Western Main Road while tackling drainage issues with a new system, reducing flooding in the Phase 2 Powder Magazine, Cocorite and Victoria Keys areas. The Diego Martin Vehicular Overpass was opened to the public the week before Christmas 2023.

The Pink Line monorail

A chilling scene unfolded in Bangkok as a section of the city’s brand-new Pink Line monorail, barely a month into trial runs, plummeted to the street. Scheduled for full launch on January 3, this 34.5 km elevated monorail stretching from Nontaburi to Murri witnessed a nightmarish incident: its conductor rail, vital for powering the trains, snapped loose and crashed down.

Shockingly, 300 metres of rail lay crumpled, with another 4 km precariously dangling above the street. Witness accounts recount seeing bolts falling first, followed by the earth-shattering crash of the entire rail. Thankfully, the tragedy unfolded outside operating hours, sparing countless lives.

Pink Line conductor rail collapse Bangkok Post
Pink Line conductor rail collapse – Bangkok Post

The link between Belt and Road and construction concerns

Bangkok’s Pink Line monorail, a gleaming symbol of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has cast a dark shadow after a section of its conductor rail plummeted to the ground.

Built with Belt and Road Initiative funding and components manufactured by a CRRC subsidiary, the incident has reignited Thailand’s anxieties about the quality of China-made products and the broader consequences of Belt and Road projects.

Concerns over shoddy construction and potential debt traps now simmer alongside questions about the initiative’s true benefits.

Economic development or debt trap

Since 2013, China’s Belt and Road has metamorphosed from a development dream to a debt dilemma. Initially hailed as a US$1 trillion infrastructure boon, showering countries with loans exceeding all other governments combined, Belt and Road Initiative propelled China to the top of the global lender leaderboard.

However, the gleaming projects, born from this financial largesse, now cast a long shadow of debt for many recipients, raising concerns about the initiative’s sustainability and its true impact on the lives of millions.

While the Belt and Road Initiative promotes economic development in many countries, its broader implications raise concerns. Critics argue that it serves as a tool for China to expand its political and economic influence in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.

Additionally, the initiative provides an outlet for China’s surplus construction capacity, with state-owned enterprises (SOEs) playing a leading role. Notably, Central Enterprises, directly under the CCP’s control, secure around 50% of large-scale infrastructure projects.

Other SOEs also command significant shares in contracts and revenues across participating countries. For example, China State Construction Engineering Corporation alone has signed over US$10 billion in Belt and Road contracts since 2013.

The sustainability of China’s loan practices within the Belt and Road Initiative has raised concerns among leaders and economists. Questions have been raised about whether certain countries have the capacity to repay the debts incurred for these projects.

Additionally, some projects have been criticised for misalignment with host countries’ infrastructure needs or potential environmental consequences. Instances like Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port lease and land concession to China due to debt repayments highlight the potential challenges.

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Tofu airport

Concerns about construction quality have arisen around some Belt and Road projects, raising questions about potential impacts on key infrastructure and long-term costs for recipient countries. Pakistan, a longstanding partner of China, has seen instances of these concerns.

In July 2021, a section of the Islamabad International Airport ceiling collapsed, raising immediate safety concerns and highlighting potential rectification costs. This incident followed a similar collapse in August 2020, leading to public criticism of infrastructure quality.

Notably, the airport was funded and built by a Chinese state-owned enterprise within the Belt and Road framework, experiencing these issues within its first six months of operation.

Tofu dams

Concerns about construction quality and financial implications have surfaced around some Belt and Road projects in South America. Ecuador, for instance, faces challenges with the Coca Codo Sinclair Dam, financed by the initiative.

Reports in January 2024 by the Ecuadorian government revealed thousands of cracks in the dam’s structure and reservoir sedimentation, raising safety concerns just two years after its 2018 opening.

Additionally, the dam’s operational issues, including vibrations and a national power grid outage, cast doubt on its ability to fulfil its intended purpose of providing electricity and reducing poverty.

Furthermore, widespread allegations of corruption surrounding the project, with officials convicted of bribery, have exacerbated public concerns. Ecuador’s reliance on Belt and Road loans for diverse projects, from the dam to infrastructure and social services, adds to the complexity, with oil-based debt repayments a significant factor.

Reports from Uganda raise concerns about the quality of some Belt and Road projects in Africa. The Isimba hydropower station, built by China International Water and Electric, has faced over 500 construction defects and frequent malfunctions since its 2019 opening.

Uganda Electricity Generation, the operator, highlighted the lack of a protective fence against debris, leading to turbine blockages and outages. Leaks in the power station’s roof further compound the concerns, as it houses generators and turbines. Notably, the project’s US$567 million cost was largely financed by a US$480 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China.

While Angola’s Kamba Kaki social housing project, built a decade ago, has faced issues with construction and quality. Many homeowners complained about cracked walls, mouldy ceilings, and poor building quality.

Concerns about the sustainability of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are growing. This isn’t necessarily due to a waning desire for global influence by China, but rather potential economic constraints.

At the recent Belt and Road Forum, President Xi Jinping announced new financing commitments, but experts like Professor He Qing Shu from Macquarie University note a significant reduction compared to past investments.

This, coupled with declining Chinese foreign direct investment in the first half of 2024, suggests BRI’s future might involve a shift towards smaller-scale, commercially focussed projects, potentially within China’s own region.

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Why World Nomads travel insurance is essential for Belt and Road adventures

Venturing into the vast network of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) promises thrilling experiences and cultural immersion. But amidst the gleaming infrastructure projects, whispers of “Tofu-Dreg” construction raise concerns.

These subpar projects, prone to safety issues and breakdowns, can turn your dream trip into a nightmare. That’s where World Nomads travel insurance comes in, offering a safety net woven with features specifically tailored for BRI exploration.

Firstly, World Nomads provides comprehensive medical coverage, crucial for navigating regions with potentially limited healthcare facilities. Whether you encounter an unexpected illness, a mishap due to questionable infrastructure, or simply need routine medical attention, World Nomads has your back.

Their plans cover emergency medical evacuation, hospital stays, and even dental emergencies, ensuring you receive the care you need, wherever you are on the BRI trail.

Beyond medical worries, World Nomads safeguards your financial well-being. Their trip cancellation and interruption cover protects you against unexpected events like flight cancellations, political unrest, or natural disasters, often plaguing BRI regions.

Imagine being stranded in a remote area due to a “Tofu-Dreg” bridge closure; World Nomads would help you recoup your travel expenses and get you back home safely.

But World Nomads‘ value goes beyond the basics. Their baggage and personal effects cover protects your belongings against theft, damage, or loss, a common concern in bustling BRI hubs. Additionally, their 24/7 emergency assistance hotline provides invaluable support, whether you need language translation in a remote village or legal advice after encountering a travel scam.

Navigating the Belt and Road might involve venturing off the beaten path, and World Nomads understands that. Their optional activities cover extends to adventure sports like trekking, white-water rafting, and even scuba diving, offering peace of mind when exploring the diverse landscapes and diverse experiences that the BRI offers.

So, as you embark on your BRI adventure, remember, the gleaming overpasses may not always tell the whole story. World Nomads travel insurance provides the safety net you need to navigate the shadows, ensuring your journey is filled with unforgettable experiences, not unexpected anxieties. Pack your bags, grab your World Nomads policy, and embrace the adventure with confidence!

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Belt and Road Initiative interest waning

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with its initial focus on large-scale infrastructure projects, has faced increasing scrutiny and concerns in recent years. Data showing subpar construction quality in some projects, alongside studies highlighting potential debt burdens for some participating countries, have fuelled these concerns.

While China announced renewed funding commitments at the recent Belt and Road Forum, experts note a significant reduction compared to past years. This, combined with data on declining Chinese foreign direct investments in the first half of 2024, suggests a potential shift in BRI’s future.

Professor He Qing Shu from Macquarie University Business School proposes a potential move towards smaller-scale projects, possibly focussing on trade and digital technology, and a greater emphasis on projects within China’s own region.

The long-term impact of BRI on participating countries, both in terms of benefits and potential risks, remains to be seen and will require careful assessment and monitoring.

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Navigating the shadows of the Belt and Road

The gleaming Diego Martin Overpass stands as a beacon of hope in Trinidad and Tobago, a testament to the potential of infrastructure projects to improve lives and boost economies. Yet, across the globe, shadows lurk within the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, with concerns about construction quality, debt traps, and environmental impacts casting a long and ominous pall.

The Bangkok monorail incident serves as a stark reminder of the potential dangers lurking within shoddy construction. While the Diego Martin Overpass stands as a counterpoint, a testament to the possibility of responsible and effective infrastructure development, it cannot erase the anxieties raised by countless “Tofu-Dreg” projects across the globe.

The question then becomes: how can Trinidad and Tobago, and other countries lured by the siren song of the Belt and Road, navigate these murky waters? Here are some crucial steps:

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1. Prioritise transparency and accountability

  • Independent oversight bodies are essential to ensure project quality and prevent corruption. These bodies should be free from political interference and empowered to conduct thorough inspections and investigations.
  • Transparency in project funding and contracts is crucial. Public access to information fosters trust and allows for better scrutiny of potential risks.

2. Invest in local expertise and manpower

  • Utilising local expertise and manpower offers several benefits: it fosters knowledge transfer, creates jobs, and builds local ownership over projects. This can also help ensure projects are better adapted to local needs and conditions.
  • While leveraging Chinese expertise can be beneficial, relying solely on foreign workers can deprive the local workforce of valuable opportunities and skills development.

3. Conduct thorough needs assessments and feasibility studies

  • Before embarking on any project, a comprehensive needs assessment and feasibility study is vital. This ensures that projects are aligned with the country’s long-term development goals and considers potential financial, environmental, and social impacts.
  • Avoiding hastily conceived projects driven by political pressure is crucial. Sustainability and long-term benefits should be the guiding principles.

4. Diversify funding sources and explore alternative partnerships

  • While the Belt and Road offers significant financing opportunities, overreliance on one source can create vulnerabilities. Exploring partnerships with other international development agencies and private investors can diversify funding sources and mitigate potential debt traps.
  • Seeking partnerships with countries with strong track records in infrastructure development can also offer valuable knowledge and expertise.

5. Prioritise environmental sustainability

  • Environmental considerations must be woven into the fabric of every project. This includes conducting environmental impact assessments, implementing mitigation measures, and ensuring responsible waste management.
  • Ignoring environmental concerns can lead to long-term ecological damage and jeopardise the sustainability of projects.
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The Diego Martin Overpass offers a glimmer of hope, but it must not blind us to the shadows lurking within the Belt and Road Initiative. By prioritising transparency, accountability, local expertise, thorough planning, and environmental sustainability, Trinidad and Tobago, and other countries, can navigate these shadows and harness the potential of infrastructure development for the benefit of their citizens, not for the creation of tofu-dreg nightmares.

Remember, the future of the Belt and Road, and its impact on countries like Trinidad and Tobago, remains unwritten. By adopting responsible and sustainable practices, we can ensure that the gleaming overpasses of the future outweigh the shadows of the past.

Sources:

Alvair https://alvair.net/portfolio/diego-overpass/#:~:text=The%20construction%20of%20the%20Diego,NIDCO)%20with%20China%20Railway%20Construction%20

Pink Line service partially halted after power rail collapse https://www.thaipbsworld.com/pink-line-service-partially-halted-after-power-rail-collapse/

Pink Line conductor rail collapses in Nonthaburi Ā© Bangkok Post PCL. All rights reserved.

https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/2711978/pink-line-conductor-rail-collapses-in-nonthaburi

Please credit and share this article with others using this link: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/2711978/pink-line-conductor-rail-collapses-in-nonthaburi. View our policies at http://goo.gl/9HgTd and http://goo.gl/ou6Ip. Ā© Bangkok Post PCL. All rights reserved.

Thrilling! Pink Line train tracks It fell on 3 people’s cars and damaged them https://www.bangkokbiznews.com/news/news-update/1105170

Ecuador power company discovers more problems at Chinese-built plant https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL1N2OW10M/

Isimba hydropower station shutdown for three weeks https://www.independent.co.ug/isimba-hydropower-station-shutdown-for-three-weeks/

Oil for Housingā€™: Chinese built New Towns in Angola https://saiia.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Policy-Briefing-88.pdf

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