It is difficult to grasp just how much we in the developed world take our roads for granted. Growing up in rural Australia, endless stretches of blacktop shimmering in the heat haze were an unquestioned necessity.

This is not the case in South Sudan. Roughly the size of France, it has a total of around 4,000 kilometres of hard-packed dirt road, in conditions generally ranging from poor to diabolical. There is a mere 100km of paved road, shared across the country’s three largest towns.

To put this into perspective, France itself has just over one million kilometres of road. (1,000,960 to be precise). All of it paved. Which is almost exactly ten thousand times the amount of tarmac in South Sudan.

Comparisons such as these can often mean little. But for any average South Sudanese farmer, living in just about any village in the country, it means an awful lot;

A road means he might be able to get his crops or his cattle to market without having to walk for days. This eases the burden on his family, especially his children who otherwise have to fetch water, tend the cattle and forage from a young age.

It means a greater chance a school can be constructed in his community, and staffed with trained teachers who are able to live in areas previously out of reach. This means it is more likely his children will receive an education. It means his wife has a better chance of delivering their next child in a medical clinic, rather than risking her life to give birth alone.

It means it more likely that a police post will be built in the area, which means that marauding attacks by cattle raiders or rebel groups will be less frequent, and less bloody. It means that he is more likely to actually meet those officials who represent him in the government. And he is more likely to have a say in the decisions they are making on his behalf.

You get the point. Roads are no panacea. But they do improve security, extend governance and reduce poverty. The UK think tank ODI recently reported that rural road construction provided widespread benefits to poor communities; expanding markets, improving access to education, strengthening livelihoods, increasing opportunities for women, and more.

The benefits have not been lost of the South Sudan Government. Kuol Manyang, Governor for the South Sudan’s largest state of Jonglei bluntly told me recently “In this state, roads are more important than schools. Without them we perish. And this government will perish also.”

Yet there are excellent reasons behind the virtual absence of roads in his state. Forty years of war aside, they are extremely difficult to build, and massively expensive.

Most of Jonglei is swamp. The rest is made up of the dreaded black-cotton soil, benign and forgiving in the dry, but turning into an evil sludge with the consistency of treacle the instant rains fall. Any road therefore has to be surfaced with gravel. Unfortunately this gravel, known as ‘murrum’ is only available in a handful of areas across the country. Every shovel load has to be painstakingly hauled over desperately poor roads that deteriorate further with the passing of each truck. Out here the circle is vicious.

This means that the average cost per kilometre of dirt road becomes anywhere between $30,000 to $200,000 depending on its remoteness. At close to one million dollars per kilometre, tarmac is not even an option.

I met Patrick Ivo, a South Sudanese engineer working in Jonglei. He told me that even the best ‘murrumed’ roads don’t survive the thundering rains which pound the landscape in the wet season. Without maintenance (which is expensive), they will last two years. He shook his head mournfully as he told me of thirty trucks, each laden with construction materials, lying marooned in the black-cotton morass less than fifty kilometres from the state capital of Bor. There they will stand until the rains cease in a few months.

Despite the challenges, there is cause for optimism. The UK funded South Sudan Recovery Fund is constructing 600 kilometres of road across some of the most conflict prone and inaccessible areas. The UK is considering investing further in a rural ‘feeder’ roads network, linking into the work of the Americans and Chinese who are pumping vast amounts into primary road construction. It will take time, money and commitment of the government and its partners. It will also require patience for rural communities. But change is coming.