News Features

Dry excavation of the new harbour in progress
(Pix by Pushpakumara Matugama)

Hambantota Harbour
Ahead of schedule

By Rohan Abeywardena
reporting from Hambantota

The will to succeed and confidence in one’s self has already helped President Mahinda Rajapaksa, unlike his dithering predecessor governments, to successfully go ahead with the urgently needed Coal Power Plant at Norochcholai and take the war to the LTTE, against the advice of local and foreign experts, who were only pushing their own agendas. Unknown to most people in the country, the Government is now quietly pulling off yet another success. The building of a purpose built deep water harbour at Hambantota. Ahead of schedule and supplementing this massive development is an equally ambitious new town, with all modern facilities, now taking shape, almost adjacent to the Port

According to Chinese engineers involved in the Port project, the first phase of the Hambantota Harbour will be completed at a cost of US$ 361 million by January 15, 2011, four months ahead of the scheduled completion date.

Sour grapes
Even here, some are still trying to make out that the new harbour would be part of a “string of pearls” (ports) that China is strategically building across vital shipping lanes of Asia, for use in the event of a future global conflict. Sri Lanka Ports Authority’s (SLPA) Chief Engineer Janaka Kurukulasuriya, who is overseeing this vital project, simply dismisses such criticisms. “It is a total myth to say this is going to be a Chinese port, for the simple reason the Chinese firms, China Harbour Engineering Co. Ltd. and Sino Hydro Corporation, have only been contracted to build it on a US$ 307 million loan provided by the China ExIm Bank. Beyond that, everything is in our hands, including much of the planning and supervision of the project. Once the project is completed, it will be entirely under the SLPA”, he said adding “There will be no Chinese say in the harbour, once it is completed.”
The SLPA too, has already spent more than Rs 2,000 million, to facilitate the project, having paid US$ 49 million for startup costs of the contractors, Rs 600 million in compensation, paid to private lands and houses acquired for the purpose, and meeting costs of  new roads, relocation of utilities such as electricity and telephone  lines etc. that were moved to the new Galle Road, from the stretch of Galle Road from Mirijjawela to the other side of Karagam Saltern, which has become part of the new Port.

Full steam ahead
Last Sunday, when we met Kurukulasuriya in Hambantota, during one of his numerous visits to the project site, he was in a jubilant mood at the pace the project was steaming ahead, with the entire consultancy work pertaining to the new harbour being handled by SLPA engineers. Had such services been contracted to foreign companies, it would have cost the country at least an additional Rs 2,000 million.

The massive project is being monitored round-the-clock by a staff of about 25 SLPA employees, including 10 engineers and the Government has not had to spend any funds to put up either accommodation or office facilities for these monitors. They are all using existing facilities within the region. Their office is a training centre built by the Norwegians in the 1990s. The other buildings used by them are mostly existing government facilities.

He has much to be jubilant of, as the SLPA has already also  signed an agreement with Huanque Corporation of China, to build an  85,000 ton Tank Farm with a 310 metre quay to store oil and gas, within Phase I of the project, on its east side. The tank farm estimated to cost US$ 76 million, too, will be financed to the tune of 80% by China ExIm Bank, with the relevant Loan Agreement to be signed within the next three weeks.

On the west side of the new Port will be a 600 metre quay capable of handling Fourth Generation massive round-the-world carriers. But, initially, in order not to be a competitor to Colombo, in the field of container shipping, it will only handle bulk and break-bulk cargo such as cement, fertiliser, coal, steel etc, along with bunkering and ship handling services.

In the coming months, the SLPA has also decided to begin the construction of  a 14-storey administrative building for the new port, running to some 80,000 sq.ft. The new narrow tower, estimated to cost between Rs 450 million  and Rs 500 million once completed, will also be the tallest building in Hambantota.

Watching over all these activities, to their minutest detail, is a man from the Deep South like the President himself. Hailing from Walasmulla, he is the Chairman- SLPA, Dr Priyath Bandu Wickrema.


As in all gargantuan projects of this nature, involving so many human elements, here too, there are hiccups and heartburn. It appears that Chinese engineers, in particular, are piqued by certain obstacles in the way of them completing the project ahead of schedule.

Deputy Project Manager- Hambantota Harbour Project, Xu Xhuin and its Chief Engineer, Xia Lin seemed somewhat disturbed, when we met them on Monday. In a way, we could not blame them. For one thing, almost the entire beachfront in front of the Karagam Saltern, which is the approach to the new Port, is blocked by fishing craft. The saltern itself is the site of all three phases of the new port. Obviously, these fishermen are not budging from there, demanding compensation, even though there is a spanking new fisheries harbour with all facilities, completed by the same contractors last year, in the old Hambantota Town, about a kilometre away.

Deputy Project Manager Xhuin complains that two months ago, there were no more than 15 to 20 fishing craft, but now, smelling compensation money, the number of craft have mushroomed to more than four dozens. We ourselves counted at least 50 fishing boats on this narrow strip of beach.

But, what has attracted more fishermen, according to SLPA officials, is the relative safety of the place by the construction of two large breakwaters for the harbour. Unlike in the past, when rough weather would automatically drive away the fishermen, now, within the bounds of these two breakwaters, the sea is calm throughout the year. Fishermen are also afforded chances of catching fish without any effort off this shore, as the underwater blasting carried out by the Chinese contractors, to deepen the approach channel to the Port to a depth of 16 metres, is producing a ready supply of dead fish.

Fishermen being fishermen are no docile creatures, to the apparent dislike of the Chinese. And the fishermen, not heeding advice to clear out at times of blasting, have already created two work stoppages. So, the Deputy Project Manager and the Chief Engineer are insisting that Police and other regional authorities intervene decisively, to stop this problem.

A senior SLPA official, however, said that the delay in having the fishermen removed from there was due to the Fisheries Department not finalising the list of fishermen entitled to compensation.

Safety compromised

Xuin, in particular, warns of dangers facing these fishermen, especially, as 150 huge dump trucks are racing up and down hauling material at any given time, in addition to blasting taking place both underwater and on the surface. And the threat faced by such outsiders loitering around will get worse, as the contractors introduce 50 more new dump trucks to speed up the work in the coming months.

The Chinese are also complaining of the refusal of several people to peacefully hand over their properties. While hundreds of families have accepted the compensation package and have already settled elsewhere, especially, in a residential part of the newly created town at Siribopura, one lawyer in particular, has refused to budge from there, demanding enhanced compensation, on the basis of the future value of the land!

By August/September, the engineers are hoping to blast the massive base rock which is on the surface of the beach and beneath the old Galle Road, to cut open the access channel to the port. The Chinese fear that, with these few compensation claims dragging on in courts, they will not be able to get on with their work before the monsoons set in.
There are also people in the surroundings demanding compensation for cracks allegedly caused to their houses due to blasting work carried out by the project.

Grama Sewaka of Mirijjawela B.G.A. Kularatne said that, in his area, 80 houses had suffered cracks.
But tests done by the Chinese and SLPA officials have, apparently, proved that the vibrations caused by blasting is only 1 mm per second, whereas the requirement is less than 20 mm per second.

SLPA officials also point out that, houses in the region, normally, crack due to the soft underground layer of mud found in the region compacting during dry weather
“It all boils down to how much money can be stolen from the government,” said the Deputy Project Manager, referring to compensation demands.

District Government Agent, R.M.D.B. Meegasmulla, however, said that, without accepting the conclusions of either side, he had asked for an independent report from the Geological Survey & Mines Bureau, with a view to getting to the bottom of the issue.

The Chinese are also perturbed by the failure of the Water Supply & Drainage Board to relocate the water mains from the affected part of the old Galle Road. Their worry is that the mains in their current position, are blocking 50% of the flood relief channel. At present, the Chinese engineers are dry excavating Phase I of the harbour basin, to a depth of 17 metres (the Colombo harbour is only 15 metres), having built a square coffer dam around the work area. However, during a heavy downpour, if the flood channel fails to clear the surrounding excess water, it will certainly flood and disrupt the harbour dry excavation work.

Unlike costly underwater excavation, which can cost as much as Rs10,000 per cubic metre, the dry excavation costs only Rs 600 per cubic metre, according to the SLPA Chief Engineer.

Grist to the mill

Obviously, there are also other players involved in the massive developments taking place in Hambantota, which will, eventually, expand to become the biggest city in the deep south, with not only a deep water port capable of handling fourth generation round-the-world cargo ships, but even an international airport at Mattala and an international cricket stadium/sports complex close to the new Gall Road, in time to come.

The Korean construction giant Keangnam has already completed at least half of the four-storey plus basement, massive new administrative complex in the new town, which is earmarked to be completed by October this year.
Nihal Wickramasuriya, one of the structural engineers supervising its construction for the UDA, is optimistic that the contractor would meet the deadline.

Sited on a 67.7-acre block of land, it is being built to accommodate 38 government offices. Other than the administrative complex, the compound will also include a municipal building, a library building, 25 individual staff quarters, and six depots to accommodate units of the CEB, Water Board etc. The administrative complex’s basement will also have an auditorium.

Within less than a kilometer from the administrative complex is a big US$ 6 million convention centre, capable of seating 1,500 people, being built by the Daewoo Corporation of Korea. The project itself is an outright gift of the Korean government.

According to its Deputy Project Director, Dr Deepal Suriyaarachchi, there had been some unforeseen delays here due to bedrock found on the surface. But he is hopeful of completing it and the parallel Second stage, now also under way, within the targeted period of 200 working days. The Second stage comprises US$ 9.3 million support complex, financed entirely by the Government, which includes a ballroom and a lobby.

Because of the high cost of excavating the bedrock, Dr Suriyaarachchi said there has been cost overruns in both projects, which would have to be met by the respective governments.

The new town already has a modern national school, a vocational training centre and a medical clinic built by a Taiwanese Buddhist Foundation called Tzu Chi. There is also an impressive community centre constructed by Singapore, which is the venue for many a government sector meeting.

With much of old Hambantota town shifting to the new, the existing town is earmarked to be developed as an archeological site and a tourist resort, according to UDA officials.
One of the first projects in this direction is the creation of a beach park, leaving out the Mosque and the cemetery, on the southern fringes of the old town.

The old town does contain some historic locations like the Kachcheri, the courts, where people like Leonard Woolf worked and heard cases, the hangman’s complex where State executions were carried out and the Watch Tower, from where the colonial masters kept a weary eye on the surroundings.