Not a Single Ship has Reached the Oluvil Port in Eastern Sri Lanka Since 2013

Oluvil Port Lighthouse on the beach, Sri Lanka
Vidiyal
,
Sri Lanka

Not a Single Ship has Reached the Oluvil Port in Eastern Sri Lanka Since 2013

“My land with 75 coconut trees was located along the coastal area of Oluvil in the Ampara district. [It’s been] missing since 2013,” 50--year-old A.L.M. Jameel said. “I have the deed for this land, but the land is no more,” he added. 

Thousands of people have disappeared as a result of a 30-year-long civil war in the country; this is still a burning issue in Sri Lanka. In this situation, Jameel, a fisherman from Oluvil, a port in the Eastern province of Sri Lanka, said that his land has also disappeared. 

The eastern part of the Oluvil area, where the South Eastern University is located, is a coastline of six kilometers. A proposal to establish a port in this coastal area was submitted by Late M.H.M. Ashraf, then the minister of ports, and a gazette notification was published on the establishment of a new port on 23 of October 1998. 

However, the construction work did not start until 1 July 2008 and the new port was declared open by the then-President and Minister of Ports, Mahinda Rajapaksa on 1 September 2013.  

Oluvil Port Entrance
Oluvil Port facade, view of the main gate / Credit: Vidiyal.
The main gate of the port of Oluvil, which is found closed
The main gate of the port of Oluvil, which is found closed / Credit: Vidiyal.

The port, consisting of two parts designated for trade and fishing, has an area of 52 acres. The lands belonging to the public living in Oluvil and Palamunai villages were acquired by the government for the establishment of this port. 

The Ports Authority claims that the compensation for these land acquisitions amounting to 77,155,662 rupees has already been distributed to landowners. However, some landowners said that they have not received any compensation so far. 

The Ports Authority stated that the port was constructed with some concrete objectives including the provision of proper port services to commercial ships, provision of coastal privileges and improvement of the coastal route. It was intended to attract investors to establish cement and fertilizer factories, as well as attract foreign investors through increased fishing to uplift employment opportunities and eliminate problems faced by the deep-sea fishing vessels. 

The Oluvil Port was established through the non-interest loan facility provided by Nordea Bank of Denmark. The value of this loan was 46,095,369.45 Euros. The present rupee value of this amount is 1,0691,934,870.00. 

The loan was supposed to be repaid in 20 instalments within 10 years starting from 31 March 2011. According to a report from the Auditor General on 30 September 2015, the outstanding amount of this loan was 23,004,634.00 Euros. 

The Ports Authority stated that as the loan is being repaid by the Treasury; the Authority does not have any related information to share on the financial aspect. 

Oluvil Beach
Oluvil Lighthouse is operated by the Ports Authority in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka / Credit: Vidiyal.

The loan agreement stipulates that the construction work of this new port should be allocated to a Danish firm. As per this condition, the construction work had been carried out by a Danish firm called MT Hojgaard. 

Even after eight years since construction, the commercial port still has not started operating. Therefore, not a single ship has reached this port so far. 

In fact, the fishing port was functional for a particular period, until a disaster ensued. After the construction of this port, hundreds of square meters of land vanished under the sea in the northern side of the port. Fisher Jameel is one of the victims of this land loss. 

Jameel said that he had maintained his coconut garden for 30 years. “It was swallowed by the sea in front of my eyes, I couldn’t bear it. The government didn’t provide any compensation for this loss.”

A “Port City” was created by filling the sea in the East coast of the Island. While this was happening, the sea intruded into the Eastern coastal areas through a port that was constructed artificially. 

Google Earth images of the changing sea levels around the port
Google Earth images of the changing sea levels around the port / Credit: Maxar Technologies, 2022.

“Our village was destroyed due to this sea erosion. We never thought that this port would bring this much disaster for our village,” says 52-year-old M.S. Jameel, another fisherman from Oluvil. 

“If we were warned about possible sea erosion in advance, we would have stopped this port construction through public protests,” he added. 

“Sea erosion occurs to a high degree during the period between November and February. Hence, we are not able to engage in fishing properly and because of this situation, we face immense economic hardship,” said B. Latheef, a father of four from Ninthavur.  

“We fear that the continuous sea erosion may destroy our generation,” says 52-year-old Latheef. He has been engaged in fishing for the last 25 years and his family rely only on the income he generates.  

Apart from severe environmental damages created by this port, thousands of families lost their lands and livelihood. The villages and townships situated on the coastal area of Ampara district such as Oluvil, Attappallam, Ninthavur, Karaithivu, Maalikaikadu and Sainthamaruthu were severely affected by this sea erosion in many ways. Not only fishing but also inland fishing, coconut cultivation and other agricultural activities also affected. 

Bouler Dams near Oluvil Port
Erosion mitigation has been unsuccessful despite the construction of boulder dams / Credit: Vidiyal.

If we look at the land losses alone in Ninthavur Divisional Secretariat area, 148 acres of private land has been completely inundated under the sea and a further 120 acres of land has been partially affected. 45% of these lands are used for agriculture land and coconut gardens (33% of the land falls under the agricultural land category and the remaining 12% is coconut gardens). Significant yields lost in the partially affected land are also observable. 

The Ninthavur Divisional Secretariat submitted a report to the Land Use Policy Planning Department — which comes under the Ministry of Land — on possible ways to stop this sea erosion. The report recommends construction of a sand barrier in addition to the boulder filling that is being carried out at present in order to protect 120 acres of land that is being partially affected. 

The coir factory in Oluvil village that was functioning since 1948 was also soon unable to operate because of this sea erosion. Meanwhile, the higher officials attached to Addalaichenai Divisional Secretariat, where the port is located, claim that the Divisional Secretariat does not have any data on compensations issued to the affected parties. 

actories and agricultural lands along the coast of the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka
Factories and agricultural lands along the coast of the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka have been affected by coastline erosion following the construction of Oluvil Port / Credit: Vidiyal.

The government implemented a project in 2010, based on expert advice, with a budget of millions of rupees to fill the coastal area with boulders. The project covered 1,050 meters in Oluvil, 45 meters in Ninthavur, and 150 meters of coastal areas in Karaithivu and Maalikaikadu areas. 

The Eastern Regional Engineering Office of the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management Department said that the project will be implemented in the future as well. 

Despite this effort, the severity of sea erosion has not decreased. As the sand bank of the northern area eroded, the eroded sand is deposited at the southern area. So while the southern land area increases, the sand bank of northern area diminishes. 

Furthermore, during a field visit to the site, it was evident that the sand taken away from the northern area has formed a sand deposit that blocks the entrance of the port. The sand deposit has turned into a resting place for the stray cows.

Due to this sand deposit, fishing boats are unable to enter into the sea from the fishing harbor. This led to the suspension of operation of the fishing harbor from 23 September 2018.  

Details of boats arriving at Oluvil Port in a table
Details of fishing boats arriving at Oluvil Port from 5 September 2013 – 7 June 2021 / Source: Sri Lanka Ports Authority. 

 

The Kalmunai District office of the Fisheries Department said that the fish production of Ampara district increased during the operating period of Oluvil Fishing Harbor. 

Graph showing the decline in fish production
Fish production in Ampara district has been steadily declining since 2012 / Credit: Kalmunai Office of the Department of Fisheries. 

Meanwhile, a Right to Information (RTI) request was raised to learn more about the operating and maintenance costs of Oluvil Port which was constructed using millions of public funds and yet has ceased operation. In response to the RTI, the Ports Authority says the Authority spends 5.6 million rupees a month to maintain this port. 

Environmental scientist Dr. Ajantha Perera said that the port was not established in a proper way and that caused the present coastal erosion. We could have avoided this situation if the port was constructed according to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), Dr Ajantha added. 

“We face this situation as the construction of this port was carried out hastily to satisfy the requirements of a few persons,” she said. 

Experts have said that the construction of this port was carried out without making an Environmental Impact Assessment. However, the Ports Authority denies this allegation and says that the Assessment report for this project, carried out by the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB), is available for reference at the Library of Ports Authority. 

Dr. K. Arulanantham, Oceanography Scientist at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), agreed that the designing error of this Port is the main reason for this abnormal sea erosion in this area. 

“The breakwater arrangements for this port were constructed vertically which blocks the sea water flow. This in turn blocks the sand flow resulting in sea erosion in the northern area and sand deposit at the entrance of the port,” Dr. Arulanantham explained. 

Dr. Arulanantham further said that “the boulders used to break water need to be re-constructed technically. To do this we need a huge amount of money.” 

Meanwhile, M.S.M. Nazeer, the president of Deep-Sea Fishermen Cooperative Society of Ampara District, said that “the investors who made investments based on this fishing harbor have lost everything today.” 

The boats purchased with the high expectation of a fishing harbor are anchored at the fishing harbor in Valaichenai. The fishermen experience an immense burden because of this situation, Mr. Nazeer added. Removing sand deposits at the entrance of the fishing harbor is the only solution for resuming fishing in this area. The government must take steps to resolve the problems faced by fishermen, Nazeer  said. 

He believes that a substantial amount of money could be generated through selling the sand from the deposits to a private company. With this money, the fishing harbor could be easily repaired. 

The cabinet has approved the proposal of bringing the fishing harbor under the administration of the Fisheries Ministry. The Ports Authority also expressed its consent for this proposal. 

The NARA conducted significant research related to this Port and provided reports to the Ceylon Fishery Harbors Corporation. Likewise, the South Eastern University (SEUSL) which is also affected by this sea erosion has also conducted research on this matter. 

Water and coastline with an artificial barrier
Oluvil is a coastal area that has been severely affected by the development of the port / Credit: Vidiyal.

SEUSL Geography Lecture K. Nijameer said that Oluvil lost its reputation as one of the best fishing villages due to this sea erosion. “We will not be able to control this erosion completely, however, growing mangroves along the coastal area will provide a temporary solution,” he said. 

Apart from that, a solution could be obtained by collecting data on sea waves for the past three years and analyzing it, Nijameer believes. 

He pointed to a case study of Kirinda Fishing harbor, which faces a similar problem. A solution was obtained, but at the cost of 5 times more money than what was spent on construction of the harbor itself. 

However, K.M. Rifas, the regional engineer of the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resources Management Department, said that due to continued climate change-driven sea level rise Sri Lanka will not be able to prevent sea erosion completely. 

However, he is of the view that the Oluvil village is protected because of boulder filling activities carried out along the coast and in adjacent waters. 

Resuming the activities of this Port will increase sea erosion, said the engineer.  

However, the Ministry of Fisheries believes that the problem could be solved easily. Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda said that steps are being taken to resume the activities of this Port in a scientific way, without harming nature. “One third of the sand deposits could be filled into the sea. The remaining sand could be sold and through this income we can cover the operational expenses of the port,” the minister said. 

Devananda believes that the port will be able to resume its activities within two or three months. However, local communities wonder whether this problem, which has persisted for eight long years, can truly be sorted out within a couple of months. 


This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Tamil by Vidiyal on 23 February 2022 and republished by Virakesari and Bufferzone on 24 February 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.  

Banner image: Oluvil Lighthouse is operated by the Ports Authority in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka / Credit: Vidiyal. 

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