Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 21 February 2010





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Hambantota port, gateway to world

For centuries Sri Lanka was famous for the export of tea, rubber, gems and many other items. However, only less than one percent of the population may know that centuries ago, the then Ceylon exported metal to Rome, Europe, Arab and other developed countries mainly to manufacture armour, including swords.

In a rocky area in Samanalawewa, near Embilitpitiya a mistrial furnace powered by strong monsoon winds was built. Field trials using replica furnaces confirm that this furnace-type used a wind-based air-supply principle that is distinct from either forced or natural draught and can produce high-carbon steel. This technology sustained a major industry in this area during the first millennium AD.

The metal produced here was exported there was a time when ships sailed to Hambantota. (Sadly today Sri Lanka is spending millions of rupees to import steel.)

Constantinople was the trading point that linked China with Europe and it took almost two and a half years to transport goods along the Silk route overland. However, due to the conflicts between countries over the Silk Route, alternative routes had to be found to connect ancient Alexandria with China.

Then the Chinese and the Arab’s selected Hambantota in the centre of the former Maritime Silk Route around 250 BC for sea transportation.

The International Monetary Fund Mission Chief to Sri Lanka, Dr. Brian Aitkin with Chairman Ports Authority, Dr. Priyath Wickrama, Deputy Chief Engineer, Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Agil Hewageegana and Chinese officials inspecting the progress of the Hambantota Port.

The name “Hambantota” was derived from the Sinhala word “Hamban” and “Thota”. The former which was used to describe a certain variety of sailing craft and the latter which means the “port”. Hence “Hambantota” was really the “port for Hambans”.

Even today this sea route is operational with 36,000 ships passing Hambantota annually.

China, Korea and Japan are some of the highest oil consuming nations in the world with Crude oil from the Gulf and 4,500 tankers sail each year on the same route. Singapore is among the best three Ports in the World with over 5,000 ship companies. This caters to 4,500 oil tankers from Dubai and over 100,000 other vessels that anchor in Singapore.

These large ships, however, had to do a de route of three-and-a-half days to Singapore and also to India, Thailand, and Malaysian harbours for refuelling, buying provisions medical supplies and other essentials. However, the Colombo Port due to its location and limited capacity was never on this map of those tankers and other ships which sail close to Sri Lanka.

When the Hambantota Port is completed ships could save nearly three days sailing of time, fuel and enjoy numerous benefits by anchoring at Hambantota. It is envisaged that many of the 4,500 oil tankers would anchor in Hambantota for bunkering, ship repairing, and to purchase food, water and medical supplies and logistics.

It is expected that at least 20 percent of the shipping traffic mainly the oil tankers would call over at the Hambantota Port.

The neighbouring countries have suddenly realised that the Hambantota project is now a reality. Hence these countries are now taking precautions to keep the ships sailing to their harbours and keep the ship companies in their countries.

Thailand has launched several ambitious projects similar to India’s stalled Sethu Samudram project to woo these ships and Malaysia too is exploring feasibility of planing a new sea route.

However, these would take a long time to materialise and by that time Hambantota would be one of the busiest harbours in the region.

Project ignored for three decades

Work in progress at the Quay wall in dry conditions

The metal crushing plant

The progressive idea of constructing a Port in Hambantota had been in the air for over three decades with successive governments, taking no serious interest in it.

However, no government or a political leader had the vision to go ahead with the implementation of the project.

Even under the Southern Development Authority set up in 1977 the Hambantota Port project proposal was confined only to words and proposals. The proposal was only limited to feasibility studies again and again with budgets running into millions but to no avail.

There was one individual, a shipping industry-lover Ariya Wickramanayake of Master Divers who did a study with his own funds and presented it to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, then a Minister.

Rajapaksa who already knew the importance of the project presented this study project and several other proposals on the construction of the Port to the then leaders of the Country. Various excuses were trotted out and the project never got off the ground.

Rajapaksa as soon as he was elected President got the project moving and most importantly wooed the Chinese leaders for funds which too was not possible before making the project a reality.

First ship to anchor in December

According to the Chairman of the Ports Authority, Priyath Wickrama, the first stage of the Hambantota Port Development is to be completed by the end of this year which is ahead of schedule. The total cost for the project is US$ 360 million.

Sri Lankan engineers and their Chinese counterparts from the China Harbour Engineering Company and Sinohydro Corporation are using maximum resources within the locality. Steps are also being taken to wash sea sand and use it for construction.

The 600 metre long jetty is now nearing completion and the depth of the basin would be 17 metres. In the Colombo harbour the depth is only 15.5 metres. The turning circle would be 600 metres and the breakwater would be 1450 metres.

One of the biggest advantages of the Port site is the 22 metre depth to the mouth of the harbour, a unique geographical feature which even the Indian Ports could not match.

Unique business opportunities

The business opportunities from the project locally and internationally will definitely trickle down to the masses with over 50,000 indirect employment opportunities being created.

A cement grinding and bagging plant would be set up along with fertiliser bagging plants.

Warehousing and offshore services too would create wealth to the area. The operation of an LP gas terminal for the first time in the country would create two tiers of pricing with the Southerners expected to receive LP gas at reduced prices due to low taxes and overheads.

The bunkering facility and the Tank Farm project too have commenced bringing more benefits to the country. The bunkering facility will comprise 14 tanks. Eight tanks will be used to provide oil for ships and aviation fuel while three will be used to store LP gas.

In a few years the Hambantota district per capita income is expected to be on par with the districts in the Western Province, which would be an achievement.

The US$ 600 million funds needed to launch the second project to be completed in 2014 too are expected to be found again with Chinese assistance. Under the third phase of development a Dockyard too would be constructed.

World accolades for Hambantota

Hambantota Port also holds several unique world achievements which Sri Lanka can be proud of.

The Port would be the world’s biggest harbour constructed on land in this century.

When completed the Hambantota harbour on 4,000 areas of land could accommodate 33 vessels to berth at any given time after completion, which would make it the biggest harbour in South Asia.

The proposed 15-storey administrative complex for the Port which could even withstand a tsunami would also be one of the best designed shipping structures in the SAARC region.

The port of Rotterdam from 1962-2004 was the world’s busiest ports until it was surpassed by Shanghai. It had higher volumes than the Singapore port. China’s Shanghai overtook Hong Kong to become the world’s second largest container port.

It is also the only harbour in the World where shippers could witness peacock and deer roaming freely in the 4,000 acre land as great care was taken to safeguard the environment.

Hambantota too is in line to be listed among the world’s busiest harbours and this would make Sri Lanka proud, a small country which was recently is elevated to a middle income country.

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