Constructing Port City

Images courtesy of Digital Globe, 1/21/10, 12/30/13, 1/7/12, 1/8/18; and Planet Labs, 7/18/18.

This is China’s Belt and Road Initiative, come to Colombo, Sri Lanka.  The state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) is dredging 65 million cubic meters of sand to form the land for what will become Port City, a proposed international financial center and entire adjunct city jutting from Colombo’s old Galle Face waterfront. Artistic impressions of the future city show dozens of towers rising beside canals and a marina, with lower residential properties ringed by a beach. Some 80,000 residents and another quarter of a million daily commuters are expected.

The contract for the project has not been released publicly, but there are suggestions that Port City will operate under its own legal and tax jurisdictions. Amid the promises of economic growth, local advocates have questioned how that growth will be shared among the people of Sri Lanka and how the burdens on the marine habitat and local fisheries, on traffic and pollution, on infrastructure for water, power, sewage and waste will be managed. What seems certain is that, in ways almost impossible to parameterize, the fabric of life in the city of Colombo is set to change.  

Meanwhile, the new deep sea port in the southern Sri Lankan city of Hambantota sits idle (below). Also constructed with Chinese financing, the port receives only about one container ship per day. The land is instead being used by Japanese, Korean, and Indian automakers to park vehicles awaiting transport.  In 2017, having struggled to service the debt on the Hambantota port, the government of Sri Lanka ceded control of the port and a surrounding 15,000 acres to the state-controlled China Merchants Group on a 99-year lease. The former chairman of the Sri Lankan Port Authority (SLPA) indicated that the Port City project was being viewed as a way of managing the Hambantota debt: “We will receive a large financial benefit by granting these land extents on long-term lease... that will enable the SLPA in return, to pay back all loans.”

Image courtesy of Digital Globe, 2/22/17. 

Image courtesy of Digital Globe, 2/22/17. 

Caroline Binley