A string of agricultural and mining settlements is being planned along a modern allweather highway across the Sahara following the ancient salt-and-silk route which made the medieval west African kingdoms of Songhali and Mali rich.
Progressing southward across an inhospitable terrain, the road has now reached Tamanrasset, the administrative capital of Algeria's Saharan provinces, and may well cross the frontier of Niger on schedule within 18 months.
The projected 3,500-kilometer Trans-Shara Highway, which already has opened up Algeria's "deep south" for economic development, will link the North African ports of the Gulf of Guinea. Its effects on trade, agriculture, and other industries will be formidable.
Africa's road-transport system, developed in modern times to suit the needs of the continent's colonial planners, is inadequate for commerce between independent states. The ports are congested and foodstuffs often spoil while waiting to be unloaded, resulting in losses of trade and often in acute human suffering. AFrica's 13 landlocked states spend up to 25 percent of their export revenues on financing the cost of the inland transport of the goods which they sell abroad.
All this may change during the current decade. The Trans-Sahara Highway is only part of the planned Trans-Africa Highway System, which will eventually crisscross the continent from Botswana to Tunisia, from Kenya to Senegal. There are four other big roads being planned: the Mombasa-Lagos Trans-African Highway, the Lagos-Nouakchott Trans-West African Highway, the Cairo-Gaborone Trans-East African Highway, and the Dakar-Ndjamena Trans-Sahelian Highway.
These, together with several more minor projects, are to provide adequate road access between any two African countries.
If similar big road-building projects elsewhere in the industrially underdeveloped regions are any guide, the new highways should, by their mere existence, generate a fever of road-building efforts all along the routes on both sides of the expressways.
The project will link the biggest potential markets of the continent. It is likely to open many areas of agricultural and mineral potential and generate employment and income not just in construction but in the ancillary services to which the road network will lead.
Given a liberalization of border policies, the new roads would integrate the continnent for the first time and "change the entire face of African trade," observes a spokesman for the United Nations Development Program. The likely effect of the change -- cultural, political, and economic -- are yet beyond comprehension.
Describing the Trans-Sahara Highway, one informed observer here predicts that "its completion is likely to have a significant development impact on both north and west Africa.
Food supplies will be easily trucked down to supplement Sahelian diets. Livestock and other produce form the sub-Saharan countries will be moved to markets in North Africa and Europe far more quickly and at less cost than at present.
"The road will help to stimulate the development of rural centers linked to it by feeder roads. And with the drilling of wells along its course, it can open up new areas for settlements."
SEa and air transport now are the most common means of moving people and goods from one part of Africa to another. The reason is that during colonialtimes intra-African trade was restricted by boundary agreements between European powers, which had a vested interest in discouraging contacts between their overseas possessions. The highways naturally followed their patterns of trade. The coastal cities thus gradually replaced the inland trading centers as the continent's main points of commerce.
But independent Africa has a special need for efficient and inexpensive inland trade routes. Many African countries today export a restricted number of primary commodities in exchange for a wide range of basic foodstuffs and manufactured goods -- and the lower the transport costs, the greater their profit margins to finance further development.
The new roads may now enable groups of African countries to initiate big, cooperative, economic policies, utilizing raw materials, technological enterprise, capital resources, and market potentials which none of them possesses singly but which may well be availble collectively to several states within relative proximity to one another.
The progress of the Trans-Sahara Highway already has enabled the Algerian government to draw up a comprehensive development plan for the five "Willaya" regions of the deep south -- Ourgla, laghouat, Bechar, Adrar, and Tamanrasset -- financed under a special investment program. The scheme embraces many urgently needed measures to improve agricultural productivity as well as houding and public-health facilities; and it covers and ambitious range of the other profitable industrial enterprises, including the export of concentrated uranium oxide by 1985.
The Sahara's export trade in salt, silk, slaves, agricultural commodities, and artifacts dates back some 3,000 years. At one time in the 14th century, when the west African civilization created some of the world's greatest centers of culture and learning, historians recorded a flourishing commerce involving some 12,000 camels a year traveling along a single caravan route across the desert.
South of the already completed segment of the Trans-Sahara Highway, transport vehicles stillfollow the old salt-and-silk route -- a precarious desert trek. The entire run between Algiers and Lagos by Land rover still take 11 days, depending on weather conditions. The new road, financed from many sources, including the huge balance-of-trade surplus of the oil-exporting Arab world, so far is costing up to $150,000 a kilometer.
The experience gained in the construction project, manned by some 20,000 young Algerians -- most of them Army recruits to cut costs -- may well be used in the entire African road scheme.
Road construction usually requires up to 300 cubic meters of water per kilometer for compaction, which represents a significant cost element in dry areas where water must often be transported over long distances. Scientists, cooperating in a global program under the auspices of the UN, now have developed a special low-moisture technique which, using natural lateritic gravels and up to 12 times less water, obtains compaction and stability standards equal to those normally required elsewhere.
The United Nations Development Program says that "the new technique also makes is possible to save on the amount og energy required for pumping, handling , sprinkling, and mixing operations. It has been estimated that the technique may reduce traditional construction costs by as much as i0 percent in arid regions. . . .
"New large-scale experiments involving the technique now are planned in Algeria as well as Mali, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Niger, and many other countries. It is hoped that this overland transport and communications in dry regions all over the world."