Workers celebrate the completion of the Cairo metro tunnel at Alf Maskan station

Workers celebrate the completion of the Cairo metro tunnel at Alf Maskan station

Given the political and socio-economic turmoil in much of North Africa, there is a surprisingly high level of construction activity taking place.

In Sudan, which finally gained independence only five years ago, plans are moving forward for the creation of one of Africa’s largest infrastructure projects, the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor, or the LAPSSET corridor.

The US$ 25 billion project includes the building of a railway, a highway, an oil pipeline and a fibre-optic cable, connecting Sudan with Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. The northwesterly terminus of the LAPSSET corridor is the new Sudanese capital, Juba.

The project will be “transformative and game-changing infrastructure for the entire African continent,” said Silvester Kasuku, chief executive at the LAPSSET Development Authority, the agency responsible for implementing the plan.

He added, “We are talking employment creation, investment, growing the economy. It is going to help us to tap resources, introduce high-value new investments, new technologies and new ways of doing things.”

While there are a number of mega projects underway in the region, none so far can match the almost 150-year-old Suez Canal in Egypt, the US$ 8.6 billion expansion of which was completed last year, providing a parallel waterway and widening the existing canal.

The project has almost doubled the waterway’s capacity by allowing a longer portion of two-way traffic in the canal and significantly reducing waiting time for vessels.

Following the work, it has been estimated that revenues for the canal could increase by almost US$ 9 billion over the next ten years.

The next anticipated development at Suez will be a vast industrial zone – a project that was recently given the green light. In fact, an agreement between Russia and Egypt could see this free trade zone on the canal commencing as early as next year.

A memorandum of understanding was signed by the two countries in February this year, following discussions on the project, dating back to 2014.

Russia’s trade minister, Denis Manturov, said Egypt had set aside a plot of 80 hectares in Port Said, with a view to expanding this to some 2,000 hectares for the free-trade zone.

According to the minister, the zone could provide close to 80,000 jobs. However, construction of the zone would require investment of around US$ 4.6 billion between now and 2035, all of which is set to come from Russia.

Egypt’s move to strengthen its relationship with Russia follows Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut crude oil supplies to its near neighbour, possibly as a result of Egypt’s decision to vote against a Saudi-backed UN resolution on Syria.

The development of Egypt’s transport network is a high priority for the government, and French engineering company Systra is playing a significant role in it.

The firm won the contract to design and oversee construction of three tunnels for cars and trains, running beneath the Suez Canal, linking the western city of Port Said to the new industrial areas being developed in the east.

The rail tunnel will comprise a single tube 5.6 km tunnel with a further 2 km of cut and cover tunnel. The road tunnels will comprise twin tube 3.8 km tunnels with a further 800 m of cut and cover tunnel.

The project will also include the construction of approach roads above ground linking the tunnels to the existing road network or future planned developments.

During the 60-month contract, Systra will oversee construction work on tunnels and ventilation shafts, the installation of railway systems, and operation and maintenance work.

Being probably the world’s foremost railway engineering firm, it seems appropriate that Systra is also undertaking work on the new Cairo metro system.

Having undertaken work on lines 1 and 2, Systra – a subsidiary of SNCF – is now moving ahead with the 4th phase of line 3.

At 5,105 m in length, phase 4A involves the excavation of a new tube between Haroun and the future stations El Nozha 1 and 2. In October this year, a speed record was achieved with progress of 28.2 m per day and the laying of 19 precast rings. The speed of Systra’s progress made it possible to drive forward 1,811 m (40% of the total length of phas 4A) in just 199 days, to reach the location of the future intermediary station of Alf Maskan.

The variable density tunnel boring machine used for the excavation work bores over a diameter of 9.489 m. Its journey started in April 2016, after assembly of the machine. Whenever progress is made in the tunnel, eight precast concrete voussoirs – tapered stones used to construct the arches – are required, forming a tunnel with a final diameter of 9.15 m.

French firms Alstom and Thales have also been progressing line 3 of the metro, after securing a US$ 202 million contract from Egypt’s National Authority for Tunnels.

The consortium is installing its Urbalis signalling solution, including Iconis at the operating control centre, point machines and station signalling equipment.

Due for completion in 2022, phase 3 comprises a 17.7 km line extension and 15 extra stations. When fully operational, the extended metro will be capable of carrying more than 1.5 million passengers a day.

Figures from market analyst IHS Global Insight show the Egyptian construction industry registered positive growth in real terms, between 2011 and 2015, and is expected to continue to expand up to 2020, with investments in residential, infrastructure, and energy and utilities construction projects. This growth will be driven by government efforts to develop the country's rail and road infrastructure and meet its energy targets by 2022.

The growing number of public-private partnership (PPP) projects, and the increasing pace of foreign investment, should also drive industry growth over the same period.

In July 2016, the government signed no fewer than 20 economic agreements with the Chinese government. The agreements, worth around US$ 15 billion, will include investments in the country's housing, transport and energy sectors.

One of the government’s flagship projects is the October Oasis, a mixed-use development in the fledgling 6th of October City.

The development, ranging over more than 2,500 hectares, will eventually cost almost US$ 1.9 billion. October Oasis is being developed by the Abu Dhabi government-owned Aabar Investments and includes residential, commercial and hospitality elements.

Of course, the October Oasis project pails into insignificance next to plans for the New Cairo city.

Covering an area of around 30,000 hectares, the city – planed to become the new administrative capital – is progressing at a distance of around 30 km from the heart of the current capital.

Ultimately, it is planned to house some 5 million residents– with a more than ambitious completion date for construction of 2022.

Already, the government has seen the need to pump more money into the project, which is expected to cost in the staggering region of US$ 300 billion. This includes the construction of a new airport, planned to be larger than London’s Heathrow.

Dubai firm Al Abbar is charged with overseeing the city’s development and funding issues that have hampered progress up to this point, seem to have been resolved, following assistance from the Chinese government.

Chinese firms are, in fact, responsible for the progression of many of the region’s larger construction projects. In Algeria, for example, a deal was recently hammered out for the creation of a new sea port at Cherchell.

The US$ 3.3 billion project, located some 90 km west of the capital, Algiers, is seen as a crucial Mediterranean transit port for goods to North Africa and Europe.

The agreement was signed between Algeria’s Transport Ministry, China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) and China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC) in Algeria.

The port will have 23 docks, capable of processing 6.5 million 20-foot containers and 26 million tons of goods per year.

According to forecasts by Algeria’s Transport Ministry, port traffic in the country’s central region is expected to hit 35 million tons or two million 20-foot containers per year by 2050.

The project is expected to be completed within seven years, and will be managed by China’s Shanghai Ports Group.

One area of construction in Africa, in which Chinese firms have been active for many years, is sports stadiums.

In the case of the recently completed Oran Stadium in the Economic Development Zone of Oran City, Algeria, China’s 22MCC Group designed and constructed the steel framework of the arena.

The stadium, which covers a land area of 290,000 m2, and has a total floor area of 59,000 m2, is currently the largest sporting arena in Algeria.

The total weight of the steel structure, including the roof, is 5,000 tonnes, which goes some way to explaining the length of time the stadium took to be completed.

The Oran stadium aside, however, Algeria is one of the few countries in Africa in which China has singularly failed to make solid headway in sports complex projects – as it is said to have worked on more than 50 such projects across the continent.

At the recent Cop22 climate change conference in Marrakech, the Moroccan government was keen to show its green energy credentials, and they are impressive.

The Noor solar complex at Ouarzazate, for example, is one of the most impressive green energy plants in the world. With the first phase of the plant now operational, Noor is delivering 160 MW of power, but the completed Noor project, at a cost of US$ 2.45 billion, will generate 580 MW – enough power for a city of around two million people.

Instead of PV (photovoltaic) solar panels, Noor uses CSP (concentrated solar power) technology – giant mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays on to tubes containing liquid which is super-heated to drive turbines. CSP offers storage of electricity for up to three hours after the sun has set, which covers peak demand times. Phases 2 and 3 of the Noor complex are due to be completed in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Morocco’s plans for solar power do not stop with Noor; proposals are being made for plants in other desert locations, with a total potential output of around 2 GW by 2020, at a cost of some US$ 9 billion. As much of the funding for Noor has come via the World Bank, further green energy projects will likely look for similar levels of external investment.

More conventional construction is now underway at Kenitra Atlantic Port, some 40 km north of Rabat. The Moroccan government has set aside around US$ 510 million for the project, which has a total projected cost of US$ 817 million.

The majority if the government cash will be used to fund harbour protection works and the first roll-on-roll-off terminals.

At the end of last month in Tunis, investment projects worth almost US$ 19 billion were showcased at the Tunisia 2020 conference.

More than 2,000 participants saw 82 projects, which broke down between publicly funded, public-private and privately funded.

Project highlights included the extension of the Tunis-Carthage International Airport and a US$ 255 million contract for the construction of the new metro system in Sfax.

Further investment projects included the construction of ports and express roads linking several governorates, as well as seven projects with an overall budget of just over US$ 2 billion in the field of energy.

For these projects to come to fruition, there will need to be a sea change in the country, where the market has historically been dominated by local firms, of which there are reportedly some 3,500.

It remains to be seen whether major international construction companies have the appetite to increase their presence in this market.

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