The visitors lounge at Mattala Rajapaska International Airport, in the district of Hambantota, 165 kilometers (102 miles) southeast of Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo.

(Photo by Priyan De Silva)

The World’s Emptiest Airport Is a Red Flag

In a remote corner of Sri Lanka, China built billions of dollars of high-end infrastructure that now sits virtually abandoned. Was that the plan all along?

Story by Holly Robertson

Published on

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December 26, 2004, started out as a typical day for M.A. Sriyanyakanthi. A vegetable seller on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, she had set up her wares at a stall across from her husband’s at the Hambantota seaside.

“The day was poya day,” she said, referring to a lunar Buddhist holiday, “so everyone was wanting to go to the temple. I was sitting in my stall, and my husband said, ‘Get up and run.’ I made a joke, saying, ‘Why, do you want to fight?’” That’s when she saw the water. Sriyanyakanthi grabbed her purse and scale before getting to her feet. “The wave came and broke the sea wall, and I ran. When I got to the main road my purse fell. I left it and kept running.”

Like it did for most Sri Lankans, the Boxing Day Tsunami took Sriyanyakanthi by surprise. Earlier that morning, one of biggest earthquakes ever recorded struck off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, displacing over seven cubic miles of water and unleashing a massive tsunami. Within 15 minutes, giant waves hit the surrounding islands, destroying villages and towns. But the lack of a warning system in the Indian Ocean meant that few had time to prepare, even though in many places it took hours for the deadly waves to make landfall.

The tsunami swept through coastal areas in the east and south of Sri Lanka, including Hambantota, an unremarkable district with a population of 660,000. Sriyanyakanthi lost track of her surroundings after she was swept away, and spent 11 months recuperating from a badly broken leg and other wounds. Altogether, 280,000 people died across 14 countries. This human toll was accompanied by destruction of infrastructure on a scale rarely inflicted by a natural disaster. In Hambantota alone, 30 percent of the so-called “old town” was washed away in the tsunami, including much of the main commercial area, according to government statistics. Thick mud, dredged up from the ocean floor, coated what was left of homes and businesses. Public transport ground to a standstill. Debris clogged the streets.

Normally, it might take decades for an insignificant section of a developing country like this to recover, but Hambantota’s infrastructure was rebuilt with astonishing speed. In fact, it was drastically expanded and enhanced, with slick-looking, highly modernized commercial and transport facilities that had never existed in pre-tsunami Hambantota. Today, a multi-lane highway connects the district to Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, in the island’s west. A major commercial port, the second in the country, opened in 2010, while the nearby Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, also the country’s second, began operating in 2013. There is an international cricket stadium, a convention center, botanical gardens, and a new administration hub. In mostly rural Sri Lanka, Hambantota’s public facilities are rare flashes of state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line urban development.

But Hambatota’s breakneck buildout is an example of a high-risk model of urbanization being executed in developing countries, with sometimes disastrous consequences. The model is an outgrowth of China’s One Belt One Road initiative, a trillion-dollar plan to build cities and infrastructure — from highways to airports to hospitals — in countries around the world. In some cases, these China-exported construction booms are welcome, helping poorer nations acquire infrastructure that they could probably never afford to build on their own. But there have also been cases in which China’s enthusiasm to build, enabled by unscrupulous governments, has led to massive development that is not in the best interests of the country receiving it.

In 2017, the Sri Lankan government was forced to come up with a way to pull itself out of spiralling debt brought on by its foreign-built megaprojects. Economically, Sri Lanka is growing, but it has also been sinking deeper into debt and must repay a record $12.6 billion this year, in part because Hambantota’s gigantic port has been sitting virtually unused, as has the international airport down the road. Both were built with Chinese money.

To settle some of this debt, Sri Lanka ultimately signed over control of the port to China, which had financed the $1.5 billion project with loans. This momentous deal means that Beijing now controls another strategically important international port. There are now questions over whether the airport—another strain on Sri Lankan finances—will go the same way or, more likely, end up in the hands of India. All of which will have lasting geopolitical ramifications in a region where India and China are squaring up to gain influence.

For Hambantota’s residents, trapped in the middle of geopolitical maneuverings, the ambitious projects carried out in their town have meant dislocation, forcible resettlements, and a more uncertain future. Authorities are planning a 15,000-acre Special Economic Zone to attract factories and other investment, a sprawling development that would push farming families from their homes. Many fear the ramifications of China’s influence, too, which is likely to shape the urban landscape, from now into the future.

“The Landscape of Nowhere”

It’s no coincidence that former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa originally hails from Hambantota. An authoritarian leader who ruled the country with an iron fist for a decade beginning in 2005, Rajapaksa had a vision for the tsunami-struck town: that it would become the country’s “second capital” after Colombo, a grand ambition that just happened to dovetail perfectly with his desire to keep the local voting community on his side. “Consequently, there was no lack of funding and political will. It was the planners’, development specialists’, and building contractors’ dream,” writes urban planner Shalini Mariyathas, lead author of the paper, “What Development Has Done to a Town: Lessons from Hambantota, Sri Lanka.”

Mariyathas points out that, as a result of the deal, no other town in Sri Lanka has transformed so significantly since the country gained independence from the British in 1948. But the promise of positive change is “nowhere to be found,” she laments. “It has destroyed the sense of place, but without a substantive replacement. The new town center is represented in a well-designed, massive administration complex and an international convention hall built in the middle of nowhere. The highways dominate the landscape of nowhere.”

Construction of the expressway connecting Colombo to Mattala. According to urban planner Shalini Mariyathas, “The highways dominate the landscape of nowhere.” (Photo by Priyan De Silva)

One of the most arid and remote areas of the country, in the early 2000s Hambantota was impoverished and sparsely populated. Fishing, agriculture, and salt production provided the main sources of income, and policymakers paid little attention to local people’s needs.

After the tsunami, however, all of that changed. Rajapaksa laid out his vision: Sri Lanka would become a “Wonder of Asia,” with Hambantota acting as a catalyst for accelerated economic growth. A massive infrastructure project, the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaska International Port, was slated to be one of the showpieces. Overseeing a ceremony in August 2010 to release water into a newly carved-out harbor basin, Rajapaksa reportedly told the gathered crowd that the port’s construction recalled the same feelings of pride and victory as the end of the three-decade civil war between separatist Tamil Tigers and the government in 2009. “We have dug into the earth, broken great rocks, overcome inland and foreign threats,” he said. “We have now entered the path to being the true Wonder of Asia.”

Around the same time, urban planners were hard at work. Hambantota district, then with a population of a little over 200,000, was redesignated as an official metropolitan area despite only five percent of the population being classified as urban as late as 2012. The Greater Hambantota Development Plan 2030 was drawn up by the Urban Development Authority (UDA), which centered around projects of unprecedented scale for the area, including the port, airport, and convention center. Rajapaksa and others touted the scheme as a boon for local job creation.

“The main objective of this new mega town plan is to become the second-largest regional and urban development hub or to act as a counter magnet to Colombo and essentially decentralize the economic development as set out in the greater Hambantota development plan,” write the authors of the paper “Hambantota Sri Lanka: Challenges in Using a ‘New City’ Planning Approach to Regional Growth in Developing Countries.” “The intention was to reduce pressure of population in Western Province and Central Hill, to ease problems of overcrowding and congestion, and to provide alternative sites for urban development.”

Upuli Perera, an urban planner and academic at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, says Hambantota was also attractive because it had plenty of unoccupied land and low population density, making it suitable for large-scale development. “But, on the other hand, there’s also a paradoxical situation that became a challenge, where you have a very low threshold initial population for the investment—that’s the reason why there’s a very long payback period,” she says. “It takes a long time for the global economic forces to come into Hambantota: the ships to come, the planes to come, the cricketers to go to play.”

The unprecedented scale of the tsunami devastation had provided an opportunity to redirect development. Soon afterward, authorities decided to forbid rebuilding by the seaside. Instead, the government built residents’ homes inland using international aid funding, creating brand new villages within Hambantota; tsunami victims were instructed to take up residence. Hundreds of others were resettled to make way for the development projects, some of them in new communities that lacked amenities such as Buddhist temples, or that had a temple, but no priest. Perera, who has studied the resettlement programs, describes other absurd effects on the coastal town. “Fisherman got resettled a few kilometers from the shore… where they have to carry all their fishing nets when they go on the bus, and carry all their fish home on the bus.”

Many more now face relocation to make way for the planned 15,000-acre industrial zone, which is also backed by Beijing and will target Chinese investors. In Karivilla, a village in Hambantota, residents are furious that they might lose their homes and livelihoods. They made their anger clear at an opening ceremony for the industrial zone in January 2017, staging a protest in full view of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In the ensuing clashes, plain-clothed thugs allegedly affiliated with the government attacked the protesters, including Buddhist monks, with clubs. Demonstrators struck back with rocks. Tear gas and water cannons were used to disperse the crowd.

Surrounded by a group of men in the village, Dharmasena Hettiarachchi, a 52-year-old farmer and a leader in the fight to save their land, says the proposed relocation site is “immaterial” to them. “It is not only about us, but also our children’s livelihoods,” he says, the men around him nodding along in agreement. “We will fight to the death. We will never leave.”

Setting a Debt Trap

At the ceremony for the industrial zone, Chinese ambassador Yi Xianlang reportedly called it “the moment for China to help other countries who need investments.” He then proceeded to detail a plan in which Beijing would invest $5 billion in Sri Lanka over three to five years, which he claimed would create 100,000 jobs. “No force can stop the cooperation from China to Sri Lanka,” he asserted.

When former Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa was first touting his scheme to transform Hambantota, he initially approached Indian officials. “It was offered to India first. I was desperate for development work. But ultimately the Chinese agreed to build it,” he told a newspaper in 2010. But few shipping companies have chosen to utilize the isolated port, and both it and the international airport were quickly dubbed white elephants. After Rajapaksa was ousted in 2015, the current government began looking for ways to offset some of the $8 billion in debt Sri Lanka owed China for various projects, soon turning to a debt-for-equity swap with the port’s chief financial backer.

“We are giving the country a better deal without any implications on security,” Wickremesinghe told reporters before the $1.1 billion deal, which gives China an 70 percent stake in the port for 99 years, was signed in July. But other high-ranking politicians—former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake among them—have conceded that Beijing has taken control of the port in a strategic move to advance its One Belt One Road goals, something the Chinese firm at the center of the deal has been explicit about.

And many analysts question the notion that it represents nothing more than a benign commercial deal. “With Hambantota port, there are concerns that the Sri Lankan government might eventually allow Chinese naval vessels to use it for more than normal visits and/or to construct naval facilities,” says David Brewster, a senior research fellow at Australian National University. “Of course, for a naval vessel to use a port in another country it needs that country’s permission” — permission that might be more easily extracted from a government deeply indebted to China.

For many local residents, the construction of the port has created practical difficulties by leaving the old town shut off from resettlement sites and neighboring villages, forcing residents to go around the harbor to get back into town. Business owners complain that trade has slowed down. And in her paper, urban planner Mariyathas found that 75 percent of businesses in the old town had to close down as a result of the project. In Mirijjawila, a neighborhood of Hambantota cut off by the port on the western side, they report that most residents now look to nearby Ambalantota as their go-to commercial hub.

Now controlled by the state-run China Merchants Port Holdings (CMPH), the port is closed to members of the public, including journalists who could once access it but are now turned away at the gates. The only place to catch a glimpse is from Hambantota’s white-sand beach, almost empty but for small fishing boats parked along the shore. Just a few ships visit each week, according to online shipping trackers and local news reports, but CMPH has signalled its intention to bring the port to “full operation” and unlock Sri Lanka’s “potential to be a global maritime center.”

More Elephants Than Airplanes

Driving to the airport is a similarly odd experience, more wildlife safari than highway route. On the way, a troupe of nine long-tailed macaques scampers past. We slow down to allow a pair of mongeese to cross in front of our motorbikes. A peacock struts by, its vibrant plumage tucked away. At one point, a dog lazes in the middle of the highway, unconcerned for the lack of traffic.

Set on a 5,000-acre plot, the airport has been built to international standards. It has glistening corridors and check-in counters, the ability to handle large commercial jets, and the capacity to receive one million passengers a year. But just one daily international flight operating between Mattala and Dubai uses the airport, plus a couple of weekly domestic flights from the capital. About 75 passengers pass through its pristine concourses each day, says a senior airport official, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to comment to the media. The only people on site during a recent visit were staff members, some bright and welcoming, others wilting with boredom. Hangars at the “World’s Emptiest Airport,” as it’s been dubbed, have even been used to store rice.

Buddhist monks wait to welcome Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the opening of the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport. (AP Photo/Sanka Gayashan)

Sri Lanka invested $209 million into construction of the airport; $190 million of that came from China in the form of a loan. The airport has been hemorrhaging money. In 2015, it recorded revenues of just over $450,000 and racked up almost $20 million in losses, according to a parliamentary committee report (PDF) released late last year. Local media has been abuzz with reports that India could step in to take over management of the airport. Brewster believes India could be willing to part with $300 million just to act as a counterbalance to China. The anonymous airport official says the government is “looking at options” and working to find more airlines to establish routes or new investors.

Elephants regularly wander into the airport grounds, and evidence of them—large splotches of dung—can be seen at irregular intervals along the road leading from the terminal to the highway. Sections of walls encircling the port have been pulverised by the pachyderms searching for their old pathways. Residents hang wires around their gardens in an attempt to keep the elephants away, a sign of increasing clashes between man and beast as humans encroach upon their habitat.

Prithiviraj Fernando, chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research Sri Lanka, says the megaprojects have eaten up elephant habitat (though encroachment by farmers is the biggest issue), but elephant corridors at the airport and across highways have helped alleviate some of the issues while the port continues to attract roaming elephants. “Currently they are chased out of there and they come back, leading to elephants becoming more aggressive towards people and increasing conflict,” he says. “In the long term, as the elephant habitat within the port area is cleared and developed, they will stop using that area.”

Though tourists are drawn to the area to see the elephants in the wild, most visitors go straight to resorts that have been built near Yala and Bundala national parks, according to a hotel operator. “In other parts of Sri Lanka, you can make a good business from tourism. Look at Mirissa, Tangalle, Galle,” he says. “In the late 1990s, we had so many tourists. Rich tourists. Everybody came to my city for a day. In big buses, big groups, they were all in the city buying things.” Now, the one-kilometer journey from the harbor has turned into 15, and tourists are bypassing the down-at-the-heel town altogether. “Nobody wants to come,” he says. “Even local tourists don’t come anymore.”

The promise of jobs was one of Rajapaksa’s big selling points — in a region with high unemployment, it was initially well-received by his constituents. But the port was built by two Chinese companies who brought in their own workers and few locals have been employed now that it is operational. “We have been promised jobs, but no one has been given one,” says protest leader Hettiarachchi. There have never been any calls for applications, he says.

Perera, the urban planner, says some local people began creating jobs for themselves about five years ago, eschewing traditional agriculture to sell building materials to the construction sites. But that came to a standstill in 2015. “When the new government came in, personally I think it was very pathetic [that] they didn’t continue any of the construction,” she says. “Regardless of whether Hambantota is the right location or not, a lot of investment has been committed there.” She says the solution to Hambantota’s problems lies in seeing through the original plans.

Urban Development Authority southern province director K.H.M.W.K. Aberathna agrees. But, he admits, funding for the project has lagged, leaving important objectives unfulfilled, including industrial planning, marketing, housing, and energy and water infrastructure. “It seems to be disjointed, [in terms of] the existing core and present administration [area],” he concedes, referring to the government administration complex that has been built on the highway, pulling officials away from the old town center. “But if the total program is done, the area may be part of the plan, not isolated. The existing core [area] lying on the beach is famous for tourism and vulnerable for disasters [such as] the tsunami, hence the new residential area was identified for development with better facilities.”

But with a change in government and the accompanying decline in political will, moving the development forward in a significant manner will be challenging. “Strong dedication of both officers and politicians, plus people, is required,” says Aberathna.

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Holly Robertson is a freelance journalist based in Cambodia who focuses on human rights, gender and the environment. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, Guardian, BBC, Columbia Journalism Review, VICE and Mashable, among others. 

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