The Hambantota Bay in southern Sri Lanka has been deemed an
excellent spot to be developed into an international seaport.
Accordingly a project commenced with the good intention of
developing the bay into a port. During the course of the project
however, the construction work took a different path and the
project resorted to a speedier and less costly method of
construction. “This sudden twist”, environmentalists point out,
is detrimental to the surrounding environment, and the displaced
The Nation takes a closer look.
“China is increasingly depending on oil imports from
Middle East countries. The sea route for oil imports is of great
importance to China and China wants to have a control over this
sea route. Sri Lanka, situated in the Indian Ocean is closer to
the Malacca Strait and has a strategic location for the
protection of the oil route.” – www.marinebuzz.com
The Bay of Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka has been long
recognised as an excellent spot to be developed into a harbour.
The natural settings of the bay are particularly important in
The Bay of Hambantota is located approximately 64 km west of the
Dondra Head. This bay is a natural harbour. It is protected by
the Hambantota headland on the east, which in turn provides
protection against the rough waters flowing from the west and
southwest. In as much the southwest monsoon waves too show no
significant impact on the harbour. The bay spans approximately
200 ha. Its sea bottom maintains a fairly steep slope.
In addition to the natural settings of the water body, the Bay
of Hambantota is also deemed a strategic location for the
development of a sea port. Its location is important in terms of
sea traffic, the proximity to India and its presence along trade
routes that link ASEAN countries with Middle East, Europe and
America. This bay also appears the most logical point for
bunkering and container transshipment, based on the fact that,
200 ships bypass Sri Lanka daily during the 3700 nautical mile
long voyage from Aden to Singapore, carrying excess fuel and
supplies instead of cargo.
Chinese & Malaysian interest
Presently, the Bay of Hambantota is being developed into a
new sea port funded by the Exim Bank of China, as reported in
www.marinebuzz.com on 02/11/’07. The entire project is expected
to be completed in 15 years in four phases. The first phase will
cost $ 450 million. Upon completion the port will be capable of
handling 20 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) per year
with 11 kilometres (km) of berths. The project would include a
gas-fired power plant project, a ship repair unit, a container
repair unit, an oil refinery and a bunkering terminal.
Further explaining China’s intervention in the project, the
website www.marinebuzz.com (02/11/’07) reports the following.
“China is increasingly depending on oil imports from Middle East
countries. The sea route for oil imports from Middle East
countries. The sea route for oil imports is of great importance
to China and China wants to have a control over this sea route.
Sri Lanka, situated in the Indian Ocean is closer to the Malacca
Strait and has a strategic location for the protection of the
Moreover, Malaysian investors are also looking forward to
develop a power plant at the port. The ‘Summary of UNJLC
Logistics Assessment, Port Summary 16 March 2005’, available
online at www.unjlc.org reveals “Chinese and Malaysian investors
have already signed to develop an oil refinery and power plant
respectively, at the Hambantota port. The entire three year
project would involve the creation of jetties, terminals, docks
and administrative buildings at a total cost of USD $ 1.5
The GoSL however believes, this development project and related
infrastructure would designate Hambantota as a new hub of
economic development in the country, lessening the ‘burden’ on
its Colombo counterpart which lacks adequate space facilities
for shipping, trans-shipment, ship building, bunkering, the
handling of large scale fuel products, increased bunkering and
catering to increased exports and imports.
Initial studies of this development project were done by the
Southern Development Authority (SDA) and outlined a plan to
construct the port in the sea. Accordingly, the Lanka Hydraulics
Institute Ltd., prepared a concept for the plausible layout of
the harbour. It was also advised that a conservation approach
should be adopted in the selection of the design criteria for
The proposed breakwater layout provided shelter to the inner
harbour area from waves. It was designed to prevent
sedimentation inside the basin and provide safe navigability
when entering the harbour.
Change in course
Though the Hambantota harbour project started off with good
intentions, it has now changed directions amidst the pressure of
vested interests. Environmentalists are thus concerned of these
sudden changes. “We emphasise that we are not against the
development of the harbour. The Bay of Hambantota has been
deemed ideal for an international harbour. But we do emphasise
on the fact that constructing the harbour by dredging the
Karagama saltern is detrimental to the environment,” said Thilak
Kariyawasam of the Sri Lanka Nature Forum. “The EIA specifically
mentions that dredging the saltern would have a negative impact
on the Bundala sanctuary. However, the EIA does not provide an
alternative to this dredging. And the project has resorted to
dredge the saltern to construct the harbour.”
“Initial studies carried out by the SDA identified that the
harbour should be built in the sea. It is stated so in the
Ruhuna Development Plan. But now, the harbour is being
constructed inside the Karagama saltern. This directs the
harbour inwards to the land rather than outwards to the sea,”
pointed out Piyal Parakrama, another leading environmentalist.
Environmentalists are of the opinion that these twists in the
original project plans were made for sheer convenience of
cutting down on costs and accelerating the project.
www.unjlc.org reveals that “Initially set for sometime in
future, damages created by the tsunami have encouraged the GoSL
to speed up work on this project. After deciding that Colombo
harbour has reached its maximum capacity, the SLPA …. embarks on
the construction of a breakwater that will allow ships entrance
to the new port of Hambantota.”
“The authorities try to justify the change saying that it is
less costly to construct a shorter breakwater into the saltern.
However, they fall silent when the feasibility and long term
impacts of dredging the salttern are questioned,” said Parakrama.
The project has already commenced mining the huge sand dunes in
Hambantota for this purpose. These sand dunes are known to have
heavily mitigated the impact of the tsunami waves that advanced
into Hambantota during the tsunami of 2004. It is indeed tragic
that the project has resorted to destroy the dunes that once
saved the city” they reminded.
The Nation spoke to Indika Pushpakumara, the Planning Officer of
the Coast Conservation Dept to seek his opinion on this matter.
He however stated that the saltern is being dredged for the
construction of the harbour and the sand dunes are being mined.
“We are going according to the EIA,” he confirmed.
Ad hoc resettlements
The mining of sand dunes has in turn displaced several
families living in the area. “And these displaced families,”
explained Parakrama, “were relocated on either side of the road
termed ‘Adi Seeye Para’ (the 100 ft road). Now these people are
encountering endless conflicts with wild elephants.”
These ad hoc resettlements contradict the Policy of Involuntary
Resettlement. The Policy of Involuntary Resettlement
specifically mentions that resettlements should be minimised
whenever possible. This should be done by considering all viable
project options. “This project however, has only exacerbated the
problem. It had not considered all viable options. Had the
project stuck to the EIA and built the harbour in the sea, the
necessity for resettlements would have never risen,” points out
The development project of the Hambantota Harbour was
permitted via the permit bearing No. P/07/202 issued by the
Coast Conservation Department (CCD). The permit was valid from
April 14, 2007 to April 13, 2008. It also specifies that all
constructions should be confined to the survey plan indicated in
the EIA report submitted to the CCD.
“There are many flaws in this permit”, explains Parakrama.
“First and foremost, funnily enough, this permit had been issued
on April 14, last year. This day usually marks the Sinhala and
Tamil New Year, which is a national holiday. How could the CCD
issue a permit on a public holiday?” he asked. “We suspect
something fishy in this”, he added.
Since the permit had expired, The Nation spoke to the Planning
Officer, CCD, to check on whether it is being renewed. “It
expired a few days ago. It will be renewed in future”, he
Secondly, condition No. 4 specifies, ‘The developer should
submit a proper resettlement plan of the affected families due
to the proposed development’. “The resettled people are already
suffering heavy damages, let alone submitting proper plans”
remarks Parakrama. “On the other hand, how can the CCD define
the term ‘proper’? What turns out ‘proper’ to them apparently
did not turn out ‘proper’ to the resettled families. They are
subject to heavy human elephant conflicts. How can such a
resettlement plan be termed ‘proper’, he queried.
Parakrama also believes that this resettlement plan was a
totally unnecessary, avoidable plan which also contradicts the
Policy on Involuntary Resettlements.
However, Pushpakumara of the CCD insists that the resettlement
plan had been executed in accordance with the Ruhuna Development
Plan. They have been resettled in areas identified in the Ruhuna
Development Plan. And the Port Authority has pledged to erect an
electric fence to curtail the human- elephant conflict. “The
situation is being monitored at present”, he added.
No 13 of the permit specifies ‘Necessary clearance from the
Ministry of Defence, Urban Development Authority, Central
Environmental Authority and other relevant government agencies
should be obtained prior to the commencement of constructions’.
“This condition is dubious”, remarks Parakrama. “I demanded an
explanation from the CCD as to what these ‘necessary clearances’
should be. Apparently they too are not too sure of what these
A permit should be very specific. It should specify the name of
the clearance and the relevant institute from which it should be
obtained. Instead, playing around with the jargon and resorting
to employing vague and unscientific terms like this cannot be