Financial Times

Chinese, Sri Lankan workers mingle at sprawling Hambantota port site

Hambantota – A Chinese operator grins high up from an operating cubicle of a crane as it lifts huge specially-built cement boulders. There is intense activity at this location at the large site of the new Hambantota port.

Down on the ground, other Sri Lankan and Chinese workers are spraying water on the boulders or making other preparations. Convoys of trucks and lorries could be seen elsewhere on the sprawling site of more than 1,000 hectares – three times the size of the Colombo Harbour.

“We are on schedule with our work and hope we could complete the first phase of the project by end 2010,” says Agil Hewageegana, Deputy Chief Engineer, Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and Deputy Project Director of the Hambantota Port project, as he drives around a team of reporters from The Sunday Times FT on September 22.

Agil Hewageegana

Mr Hewageegana, who has been involved in this project for a near three years shuttling between Colombo and here since he handles his other port functions too, said the project cost of the first stage is US$360 million of which 85% comes as a loan from China’s Exim Bank while the balance is given by the Sri Lankan government. Construction was inaugurated at the site in October 2007 but work officially got underway in January 2008.

The project doesn’t have a separate consultant, the normal practice in mega projects of this nature. The deputy project manager said the SLPA is the client cum consultant while the China Harbour Engineering Co Ltd is the contractor. Nice rows of temporary buildings – looking like a Middle East construction site – lie at the entrance to the new harbour development on Mirijjawila road housing the offices and residential quarters of the Chinese executives and workers.

Qin Xu

The SLPA is also acquiring another 500 hectares essentially to make sure there is sufficient land later for expansion. The Colombo harbour has a total of 300 hectares. “We would like to have enough land as possible so that there won’t be a problem eventually when there is a need for land,” Mr Hewageegana, said driving on a dirt track towards the breakwater which is under construction and across from the main Hambantota-Colombo.

There are more than 500 workers at the site: 328 Sri Lankans and 235 Chinese. The entrance to the harbour is to be built on this main road which has been closed for traffic since construction began. When proceeding from Colombo, travellers now take the Mirijjawila road which connects a new road to the other side of the town.

The draught (depth) of the new harbour will be 16 metres against 15 metres in Colombo. A 230 metre passage-entrance channel will be created at the breakwater which is 988 metres long on the west end and 311 metres long on the east end. The 474 families living on this location have been relocated except for a few.

Perhaps the most interesting element at the site is the spread of cement boulders or ‘Chinese pods” as they are called prepared for construction of the breakwater. “Since there wasn’t enough natural rock, these Chinese pods have to be made,” he said adding that they come in sizes (tonnes) of 12, 18, 21, 27 and 30. The breakwater needs 12,800 pods and so far 7,800 pods have been made. “Work is on track,” the SLPA official said.

According to the schedule, the breakwater is to be completed by end 2008. The first stage due to be ready by end 2010 will allow three ships to berth. The final stage, for which funding hasn’t been found as yet, can accommodate more than 30 ships, the capacity in Colombo. “But we don’t want to set up container yards and cater to container ships as we don’t want to compete with Colombo,” Mr Hewageegana said.
Work is also onging in the coffer dam and dredging. “Dredging (to create the depth) is normally under wet conditions. But that is costly and thus it is being done in dry conditions,” he said. In this process dredges remove the sludge and then the water is pumped out. Thereafter trucks and excavators move in to escavate 16 metres and then the water is replaced.

The new Hambantota harbour, for long an option proposed by governments now and then, is crucial to Sri Lanka’s development as an average 200-300 ships daily pass on this sea lane and is an ideal location for provision of shipping services and docking.

Qin Xu, Deputy Project Manager from contractor China Harbour Engineering Co said they normally work one shift unless there are emergencies which then require non-stop work. The company, which has handled similar projects in Hong Kong, Pakistan, Malaysia, Macau, Africa and the Middle East, has been operating in Sri Lanka for the past 10 years. (Feizal)

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