Colombo Port City Back In The Limelight
by Waruni Karunarathne
Despite the concerns raised by environmentalists and the civil society the government that initially admitted the environmental risks in continuing the controversial Chinese Port City Project in Colombo has now hinted at recommencing the US$ 1.4 billion project, funded by the China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC).
Construction work of the Port City project commenced under the previous regime in September 2014 with a direct foreign investment from China worth US$ 1.43 billion, and the project intended to reclaim 233 hectares on the sea between the Southern edge of the new Colombo South Port and the Fort Lighthouse. The former government and the Chinese company reached agreements to proceed with the project to incur investment of over US$13 billion in the coming decade.
Many concerns were raised over the project by environmentalists and members of the current government who at the time were in the opposition. Later, the project was suspended by the new government that assumed office after the January 8th Presidential election for a review of the contract. During the judiciary process, it was revealed that the relevant Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was not conducted prior to the commencement of the project.
While there are still ongoing court cases to determine whether the project should be continued, Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Patali Champika Ranawaka has told a Chinese newspaper that China Port City project will be included in the megapolis development plan for transforming the country into a “smart and technologically advanced nation” in the coming five years. Meanwhile, Cabinet approval was also granted to extend the project agreement for another six months while the judiciary has called on relevant authorities to sign a new agreement with the Chinese company if the project is to be continued after the new EIA which is expected to be done in consultation with all the relevant stakeholders.
However, during the recent visit of Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin to Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan government had reportedly informed the Chinese government that the Chinese-funded Colombo Port City project would restart at the earliest possible date.
“Sri Lanka should implement the already signed agreements of the Port City Project and protect the legitimate rights and interests of the investors. I have received a positive response from the Sri Lankan side, and the leaders have made it clear that they will firmly put forward the Colombo Port City Project and with joint efforts the Project will see a restart of construction at an early date,” Liu then revealed.
Nevertheless, environmentalists have been in a constant struggle to terminate the China Port City project permanently due to many environmental impacts that it has caused which include the immediate adverse impacts on the western coastline and marine ecosystem.
Environmentalists claim that the Project activities undertaken so far have already destroyed some reefs in the Western coastline decreasing the fish population in the area affecting the fisheries industry while causing numerous other irreparable damages to the environment.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader, environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara said that during the recent visit of the special Chinese Envoy to the country, China has also put pressure on the Sri Lankan government, stressing on the need to continue previous agreements between the two countries if the two countries are to continue strong diplomatic ties.
“We do not see this as a diplomatic agreement between two countries – because it is an agreement made between a country and a company but not an agreement between the two countries. If the China is trying to interpret this as a diplomatic agreement, it shows how countries like China look at matters of this nature, and how they are trying to get countries like Sri Lanka under their grip. There is a huge issue of how we can face this pressure as a nation,” he noted. According to Chamikara, the Centre for Environmental Justice has already filed some cases against the Port City Project.
“In the court, the Deputy Solicitor General clearly stated that a proper EIA has not been conducted prior to the commencement of the Project. Therefore, the company was asked to conduct a new EIA in consultation with all the relevant stakeholders to get the consent to continue the Project. Even if it is to be continued, they have to close the current agreement and sign a new one with the Urban Development Authority (UDA). Minister Ranawaka, despite all this, has said a Chinese media that the Port City Project will recommence its work which is a very wrong statement as the statement clearly disregards the orders given by the country’s judiciary,” Chamikara observed.
Chamikara also alleged a huge change in the stance of the government, especially the stance maintained by Minister Ranawaka who raised various concerns over the continuation of the Port City Project during the previous regime. He also noted that this project is the biggest investment a Chinese company has made in Sri Lanka, and the nature of the project does not only challenge the environment but also challenges the sovereignty of the country.
President of the Centre for Environmental Justice, Attorney-at-Law Ravindanath Dabare who is appearing for the Port City Project appeal case added that there is a legal process in the country which needs to be respected and everything should happen within that legal process. He said that the next hearing is scheduled for November 17, and they are expecting the submission of all the relevant agreements made between the government and the Chinese company to the court and to the petitioners.
He also noted that the validity period of the exiting agreement between the government and the Chinese company has extended for another six months with the Cabinet approval.
“According to our understanding, now they are making a new EIA, and there is a special committee appointed to review the Project. However, even if they run the EIA through the special committee, there is a need for opening this matter to the public to get the public consent and the comments,” he added.
According to him, it will create room for intellectuals and experienced people who are well aware of projects of this nature to come forward and speak of their impacts.
“There are experienced people who are well aware of the land reclamation process and the amount of resources such a large project will consume internally to get complete, especially in extracting granites, sand, water, electricity and other resources. After listening to these experts, people will have the understanding if this project should be continued,” he added.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Nature Group Thilak Kariyawasam added that the Project was initiated by the previous regime without giving any thought to the adverse environmental impacts that it would cause. Despite the promises made by the government, there are efforts by the members of the current government to obtain the EIA in a similar manner like the previous government without proper consultation with the relevant stakeholders, he observed.
“In order to produce the EIA, all the relevant authorities need to be consulted. It comes under the Coast Conservation Department, and there are several other authorities that have a bigger responsibility. On the other hand, there should be a concurrent approval from the Central Environment Authority (CEA). They have taken initiative to consult the CEA, but they have not sought for a broader consultation. Therefore, there might be loopholes in technical expertise they receive. If they are not getting necessary consultation and overview from the relevant authorities, this EIA might also end up like the previous one with errors,” he noted.
Kariyawasam added that the People’s Movement against the Port City Project will continue to work with the experts in the field to understand the impacts of the continuation of this project especially on marine biology, western coastal line, and on fisheries communities in the country. He added that they will continue their people’s awareness programme to make people understand the gravity of this project to help people raise their voice against the Project if the government recommence it without properly addressing the environmental concerns.
When the government was questioned if they are to recommence the Port City, what is the validity of the claims they made before coming into power, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Harsha De Silva said there is no change in the validity of the claims that the government made about the Port City Project.
“Those claims were based on the issues of environment, ownership, security, and economy. There were four major areas of concern. Now a new committee has been appointed to look into these issues,” he added.
He, however, admitted that the environmental concerns need to be addressed and the issue related to the ownership of land whether the Chinese company is going to have a freehold ownership of 50 acres of land also needs to be resolved. He reiterated that security and economic concerns related to land prices and type of contraction in the Port City will also have to be addressed.
“There is no change in the claims made then. We need to reach a compromise and come up with a solution,” he said.
When inquired as to what is the delay in producing the new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the Deputy Minister added that the report is expected within next few days.
“It is not a simple matter. It is a complex issue. There are legal issues, environmental issues and several other areas of concern. Let the report be out. We waited all this time. Let us wait for another week for the report to come without jumping the gun before that event,” he added.