As Pakistan braces for the challenges of a new decade of development with increasing population, scarce natural resources and adverse geo-strategic environment it will need national strategic organizations that can be relied upon for reach, resilience, competitiveness and cost-effective solutions – Frontier Works Organization (FWO) tops the list.
As Pakistan’s population increases from its current 225 million (The Economist, World in 2021, Countries, Pakistan, P:104) towards 300 million by 2030, it will be accompanied by increasing rural-urban migration, ballooning towns with a higher percentage of younger men and women looking for education, skills, jobs, housing units and road connectivity. Even currently almost two-thirds of Pakistani population is below 35. This increasing urbanization, with a younger mix of population, will change social, political and economic dynamics offering newer opportunities and challenges to the state of Pakistan. Unless the country’s economy is able to provide meaningful jobs and structural and logistic facilities to this younger population for safe living and productive working conditions, this will lead to political instability and chaos.
Table titled, “Pakistan: Infrastructural Challenges of Next Decade” provides a glance at the infrastructure challenges that have built up with rapid urbanization, over the past few decades, in what was otherwise a predominantly agricultural society. These challenges now demand immediate recognition, clear policy directions, quick decision making and need for national strategic organizations – like FWO – that can deliver in country’s ground realities that include mega projects of national and regional importance, in difficult to access far-flung areas and often under hostile environment.
KKH at times has been referred to as the “8th Wonder of the World” because it’s the highest paved road network of the blue planet that traverses the mountain ranges at above heights of 4000 meters.
Why need National Strategic Organizations?
The situation that was encountered in parts of Baluchistan where sub-nationalists were directed and supported by the external forces to disrupt projects linked with CPEC, the development priorities in erstwhile FATA and road networks connecting border towns and villages of Azad Kashmir are good examples where progress was not possible without a national strategic organization like FWO. In all these instances, development is also needed to mitigate historical patterns of under-development and feelings of neglect. External hostile forces for the same reasons need to thwart these strategic initiatives because it helps their entrenched narratives of “state neglect”. Rapid and sustained structural development in the form of road networks, highways, bridges, ports, trading facilities, banks, hospitals, schools, colleges and the government offices across Baluchistan and erstwhile FATA can defeat these destabilizing narratives being pushed from the outside.
We, therefore, take a look at the Frontier Works Organization (FWO) as a national strategic organization that has delivered under circumstances of unusual challenge and adversity.
KKH: Ancient Silk Route transformed into 8th Wonder of the world
FWO was commissioned and established in 1966, when Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers was tasked for the construction of the 805-kilometre-long Karakoram Highway Road (commonly called KKH).
KKH at times has been referred to as the “8th Wonder of the World” because it’s the highest paved road network of the blue planet that traverses the mountain ranges at above heights of 4000 meters. It is an epic story of ambition, hope and courage. In Phase-1, (1966-1973) a shingled truck-able road was completed from Thakot to Khunjerab (620 Km). In Phase-2, (1973-78) road was widened and carpeted from Thakot to Holigush in Hunza. As much as 99 permanent bridges were built with the help of Chinese friends replacing the old equipment bridges. The average width of the road was 7 meters in mountains and 7.5 meters in flat-lying areas. Never before had mechanized traffic passed through these mountains at such heights. Almost 780 FWO workers laid down their lives, and more than 1200 suffered serious injuries during the 12 years of challenging work that involved blasting hundreds of rocky mountains. A dream was born that ultimately manifested itself in the form of CPEC and BRI after 50 years – but seeds of what is now being described as “game-changer” were laid in 1966 when Pakistani and Chinese engineers started work on KKH.
Unless the country’s economy is able to provide meaningful jobs and structural and logistic facilities to this younger population for safe living and productive working conditions, this will lead to political instability and chaos.
Braving the challenge of Attabad Landslide and Lake (2010)
Making KKH was a heroic undertaking but maintaining it as an all-weather highway is no mean task either. Though harsh weather, snowfalls, landslides, and flash floods were always troubling, yet nothing can be compared with the challenge thrown by the monstrous landslide in Hunza in 2010 when River Hunza was blocked over more than 2 kilometers with an estimated 2.5 billion cubic feet of landslide debris creating a lake 25 kilometers long and 200 meters deep blocking 19 km of the KKH disrupting trade and supplies to the affected areas. FWO, true to the spirit of a national strategic organization, rose to the challenge along with its Chinese partners first creating temporary solutions of ferries and barges for connectivity and then managed to realign 24 km of KKH with five new tunnels of around 7 kilometers. It took five years of out of box engineering solutions to restore what is now progressing ahead as CPEC.
FWO: From Engineering designs of “Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission” to “State of the art Tunnelling Organization.”
FWO was tasked to work urgently with Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) in December 1985 – on what was then top national strategic priority. It completed the initial engineering design in 1986, kick-started the construction of Khushab Nuclear Complex the same year, and rapidly completed the Uranium mining facility at Baghalchur in February 1987. Later, in 1990, it was assigned the task of constructing a uranium mining and milling facility in Thola Dagar, Punjab. It completed the survey and feasibility studies within three months and then quickly completed the construction of the mining facility by October 1991.
The FWO alongside another military organization, the Special Development Works (SDW) – both of which fall under the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers – were involved in the construction of tunnels at Chagai, Balochistan in the late 1980s in preparation for the Chagai-I nuclear test which was eventually carried out on 25 May 1998. Its engineers remained involved during the nuclear test at Kharan Desert, codename Chagai-II.
In the world of engineering and construction, there are few projects more awe-inspiring than tunnels. By their very nature, tunnels defy the elements around them. Depending on where they are located, they may burrow through mountains, go underwater, or protect passengers from the outside world. Euro Tunnel that connects the UK, with Europe, passing 250 feet under the sea is a classic example of a project that defines modern engineering. FWO in recent years has emerged as the country’s premier “tunnel construction company”, its capabilities manifested as it worked on six tunnels to align the Swat Expressway across the difficult hilly tracks. It now intends to establish the “Tunnelling Institute of Pakistan (TIP)” which will not only assist in the capacity building of the local tunneling industry (private companies) but will also support FWO in planning, designing, and execution of all tunnelling and underground construction projects nationally and internationally. It represented Pakistan at the “World Tunnelling Congress” in end of 2020.
Future in Diversification: Overseas projects, tourism & mining
Since 1978 – when it was retained by the government for national projects across the country – FWO has steadily grown, accumulating diverse technical experiences, financial muscle, and corporate strategies, to become a national giant that has undertaken the construction of bridges, roads, tunnels, airfields and dams all across Pakistan – often managing projects speedily at places and under circumstances where another organization could not deliver. For instance, FWO completed the 193-kilometer “Gawadar-Turbat-Hoshab Road (M8)” in 2016 after other contractors had abandoned the project, and no company was willing to undertake the risks. This road along with N-85 and N-25 links Gawadar Port with Quetta and Chaman and forms part of the western route of CPEC.
Structural works for Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), the extension of Mangla Dam Hydroelectric works, cost-effective renovation of Lahore Islamabad Motorway (M2) in record time, arduous excavation of glaciers after the Gayari tragedy in Siachen, and speedy completion of Kartarpur Border Terminal are few good examples of the trust FWO inspires as a national strategic organization.
FWO, true to the spirit of a national strategic organization, rose to the challenge along with its Chinese partners first creating temporary solutions of ferries and barges for connectivity and then managed to realign 24 km of KKH with five new tunnels of around 7 kilometers.
FWO has already started to expand its footprint beyond the borders of Pakistan by undertaking projects across the Middle East (Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai) Africa, and Afghanistan. Torkham Jalalabad Road, Logri Hospital Afghanistan, Sports Complexes in Abu Dhabi and UN rehabilitation projects in Liberia are some of the projects amongst many others.
The future commitment of FWO is to continue working for towards the development of the nation through diversification in all facets of economic development – including tourism and mining. It is making feasibility reports for a number of potential sites such as Malam Jabba, Naran, Kaghan, Batakundi, Lalusar Lake, Hassanabad, Nilt, Naltar, Passu, Ormara, Pishukan, and Kund Malir and is looking for partners to advance this tourism vision. Its “Marco Polo Resorts” scheme now allows customers to make online reservations for tourist spots. MEDO, a department under FWO, is undertaking exploration and mining of base metals and dimension stones across Pakistan since 2015. MEDO – adopting the principles of indigenization, value addition, and welfare of locals – is currently working on a copper mining project in North Waziristan, Granite mining at Nagarparkar, and is carrying out exploration activities in Chipurson, Nazbar, Chillum, and Bunji in Gilgit Baltistan. Starting from November 2019, it is now exporting “Beneficiated Copper” from its Mohammad Khel Copper Mining Project.
The government of Pakistan, in 1978, had decided to retain FWO after the successful inauguration of KKH. History has proved it was a wise decision. From Khunjerab to Gawadar, from Khyber to Karachi, from Mangla Dam in AJK to nuclear testing tunnels of Chagai in Baluchistan, from mining fields of Waziristan to overseas markets of Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan FWO’s bold footprint can now be seen everywhere in national service. National strategic organizations like FWO will be needed for strategic projects to achieve rapid structural development in areas – of natural adversity and hostile presence – where most contractors will fear treading.