Oluvil, a coastal village located in the Ampara district of eastern province of Sri Lanka, has a large coastal land width, where many good ideas lead to the building the Oluvil Harbour Port project. Unfortunately, it has now become yet another white elephant project for the state, not because of non-use or under-utilization; but due to the serious issue of high recurrent maintenance cost to remove a very high volume of sand that accumulate within the harbour basin and at the entrance to keep the harbour operational over the past several years. Further as buildings, coconut plants, paddy fields, boat landing beaches and fishing activities are threatened by sea erosion, more funds are required to stop erosion and resurrect a few kilometers of the shoreline to the North of the harbour; thus sustaining this harbour is a burden to the state.
Earlier in 1994, a political leader from the Eastern Province, as the Minister of Shipping, Ports, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction initiated the idea of building a harbour at Oluvil, even though this coastal stretch was not considered suitable for a harbour. But due to insistence of the minister a basic conceptual plan for a harbour with two breakwaters was prepared and proceed with a detailed technical feasibility study in 1995 costing SLRs 22 million. Though the study had concluded the project to be technically feasible and the subsequent financial feasibility study had shown it to be financially not viable and attempts by the Ministry to obtain foreign funds failed due to the financially non-viable situation. However, without any environmental impacts considerations by the authorities, the construction of the Oluvil commercial harbour and the fishing port commenced in 2008 under the Neganahira Navodaya development program of then government with an allocation of approximately Rs 7,000 million with the financial assistance of the government of Denmark and the commercial and fisheries harbor with ice manufacturing plant was constructed and opened in 2013.
The completion of the harbour was expected to boost economic infrastructure activities especially in the Eastern Province. The Oluvil Port consists of two sections, a commercial harbour and small craft harbour (fishery harbour). The commercial port has a 330 metre quay with a water depth of 8 metres, while the fishing port comprises 200 metres of quay with a water depth of three metres. The commercial harbour comes with all other harbour related institutions and buildings such as warehouses, police station, generator and transformer building, communication centres, fuel storage, while the fisheries harbour consists of ice plants, cold room facilities, storage facilities for fishing equipment and many other facilities. The commercial harbour would have enough depth to handle ships up to 5,000 metric tonnes and the fisheries harbour could hold more than 250 fishing boats simultaneously. A light house for the Oluvil harbour has already been constructed for the benefit of both commercial and fishing crafts. The construction of the commercial and fishing port, which consists of two phases has been completed by a Danish construction company. During the first phase, two breakwaters were constructed and during the second phase, dredging was undertaken to enable the port to handle vessels of up to 16,000 tons.
Moreover, the port was to form the south-eastern link in the developing chain of coastal harbours in the country and provide more convenient and cost effective access to and from the south-eastern region for goods and cargo originating on the west coast. The newly constructed Oluvil harbour is the eastern link of the development chain of the government and was then considered as the largest development project to be undertaken in the Eastern Province.
Unfortunately, since its opening due to stoppage of littoral sand movement towards the north by the southern breakwater caused sand bank build up behind it up to its tip and overflowing into the harbour, thereby blocking the fisheries harbour entrance. As the basin got very shallow harbour become non-operational. Confirming that the sand movement estimates derived from mathematical modelling and such methods during initial technical feasibility study have been far below the real situation and was observed to be many times the estimated value.
If left without any further attention, the port would disappear with sand filling the whole premises but creating disaster in the coastal stretch to the North of the harbour stretching several kilometers, due to severe erosion resulting in the disappearance of an extensive area, and losing coconut trees, paddy fields, beaches available for boat landing, fishing etc.
On the other hand if corrective action is taken after proper studies, it would need much more than the original cost of the project, with the question of seeking funds. Critical activities are dredging of sand accumulated inside and behind the Southern breakwater and transporting the sand to the Northern beaches, referred to as sand bypassing. Nourishment and filling of Northern beaches with sand from the South have to be a continuous annual process, as otherwise the Northern beaches will erode severely.
Looking at the sand filled harbour basin and the Southern breakwater, the sand quantity may be considered to be over 1 Million cubic meters and this build up has occurred for over three years after the opening of the harbour in 2013. Thus the littoral drift towards the North may be in the order of 300,000 cubic meters in a season. This follows experience with the Kirinda fisheries harbour built with Japanese grant assistance and totally filled up with sand around 1995; extensive structural modifications were built after much study by the Japanese consultants and spending nearly five times the original harbour cost and rehabilitated successfully for greater usage now.
When the northwards drift is blocked by the breakwater system, it becomes essential to transport this amount of sand from the South to the Northern beaches for artificial nourishment of the beaches by some means to stop erosion of the Northern beaches. The coast protection structures built some time back to arrest erosion seem only transferring the erosion problem further north. The cost of initial rehabilitation may be about US$ 10-15 Million and annual recurrent expenditure about US$ 2 -3 Million per year on a continuous basis, which is a guestimate. A proper detailed study by a competent consultant would be essential.
Unfortunately, the harbour is facing many problems, disadvantages to human life and bring lot of physical impacts. The development of the harbor has caused more problems in the adjoining areas of Oluvil, one of the major physical impact is the coastal erosion, for after the development it has eroded much higher level, than the previous level and the sea has moved more than 100 meters inland with land area changed physically into a triangular shape and to prevent much human activities such as prevented fishing, destroyed mangroves and uprooted many coconut trees. So these affects should be reduced all sites in a significant ways. There should be proper planning for the wave breaker systems in order to control the erosion in Oluvil site. The people who lost their land, they must give the compensation to them and also must be help their job and monthly income. They must allow fishing the traditional fishermen in the sea as equal to fishing harbor. There should be the plan to plant coastal plantation to control the erosion. There should be organized the awareness program on the coastal erosions and to control these problems in minimum level.
The Oluvil Harbour environmental problems have increased further due to more human activities with industrial and urban developments. The President on receiving many appeals regarding it through social media, telephones and meetings has requested the minister concerned to visit the Oluvil Harbour and several neighboring villages that are badly affected by erosion. Accordingly the minister did visit the sites on Sunday, to collect first hand information from end users of the facilities. Even if the government is willing to abandon the harbour, it is not that simple as all protruding structures, such as, breakwaters have to be removed to reinstate original littoral sediment transport mechanism and the cost of such corrective action could be similar to the original cost of construction.
As the decision by the government is very complex, but essential, the Minister has told the people at the gathering that their issues will be resolved by the government gradually to get both the commercial harbour and the fisheries port with all associated facilities fully functional, probably after the General Election due in April!