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