The World’s Emptiest Airport Is a Red Flag
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.”...MUCH MORE
“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.