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 people.
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

Nimashi Amaleeta
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 this concern.

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 oil route.”

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 billion.”

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.

SDA studies
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 harbour.

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 Parakrama.


Disapproved ‘Approval’

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 replied.

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 clearances are.

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 accepted.”