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Sri Lanka’s Chinese-built port city stirs white elephant fears | Business and Economy

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Colombo, Sri Lanka – As far as many residents of Sri Lanka’s capital are concerned, another beach is the last thing the island nation needs in the midst of its worst economic crisis in history. The island nation’s 1,340 km of coastline is blessed with some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful beaches. world.

However, Port City Colombo (PCC), a sprawling Chinese-built reclaimed commercial district in Colombo, recently unveiled an artificial beach facing the Lakadive Sea.

Priyangi Jayasinghe, a researcher at the Munasinghe Development Institute in Colombo, told Al Jazeera:

Jayasinghe is one of many local critics who fear the PCC is another Beijing-funded white elephant in the mold of the controversial project. They include leasing to China’s state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited in 2017 after Sri Lanka struggled to repay foreign creditors and private lenders, including China, India and Japan. including the deficit Hambantota International Port.

Critics say PCC, which is being developed on a 269-hectare (665-acre) landfill, is not sustainable and will bring little benefit to the country’s struggling economy.

“The impact of the PCC on the Sri Lankan economy will be negligible. At a time when the rest of the country faces tax increases to deal with the economic crisis, it will become another tax-free dreamland.

CHEC Port City Colombo, which is developing the PCC, has rejected criticism, saying the ambitious development project funded by $1.4 billion under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will bring South Asia a world-class Claims to establish a city.

CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary of China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC), which is a majority state-owned China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC) headquartered in Beijing. ) is a subsidiary of

The port city of Colombo is being developed on a 269-hectare (665-acre) reclaimed land in Sri Lanka’s capital. [Stuart Heaver]

Due to be completed in 2041, construction has been completed on parts of the site, including a footbridge and an artificial beach that was due to open in December, but remains closed to visitors.

The project’s credibility was boosted by a high-profile visit by former British Prime Minister David Cameron in January. However, suffering from rampant inflation and food shortages, many locals are skeptical of China’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s economic problems.

“That’s China,” the electric tuk-tuk driver told Al Jazeera, pointing at PCC’s massive construction site as he drove through daytime traffic.

“Every time I return to Colombo, the government has sold a piece of the country to China,” Prem Velautam, a Sri Lankan living in the UK who recently visited the place, told Al Jazeera.

In fact, concerns about Chinese ownership are based, at least in part, on misunderstandings about the facts on the ground.

Like Hambantota Port, the PCC is not owned by China or Chinese companies, but 65% of the 178-hectare (440-acre) salable landfill is held under a 99-year lease by China’s majority state-owned enterprises. increase. company.

“Given Sri Lanka’s role at the epicenter of ‘debt trap diplomacy’ and the well-documented issue of Hambantota Port, it is likely that residents of Colombo and elsewhere will be skeptical of such a flashy project. It should come as no surprise that they have good reasons, Austin Strange, co-author of Banking on Beijing and assistant professor of international relations at the University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera.

CHEC Port City Colombo said its development will create 143,375 new jobs and $13.8 billion in additional economic value annually. [Stuart Heaver]

CHEC Port City Colombo says the project will create 143,375 new jobs and $13.8 billion in additional economic value annually.

A company spokesperson said: “PwC has conducted an economic impact assessment for the Port City of Colombo, highlighting the importance of this project across multiple economic instruments.

Critics question whether these calculations include all environmental costs.

Vidhura Ralapanawe, a sustainability expert who advised the PCC Commission, the government agency tasked with overseeing the development, said the project is vehicle-centric and is expected to see increased demand for energy, water and sewerage. said it had not given due consideration to

Ralapanawe also pointed out that a $1.5 billion Japan-funded light rail project that was supposed to serve as the main public transport link between PCC and Colombo was canceled in 2020.

“In 2021, I told the (PCC) Commission that the existing sustainability plan was not good enough. Sustainability and innovation at sustainable apparel maker Epic Group told Al Jazeera.

“What we have now is not ‘so much’ in terms of sustainability. This is what was designed as a cheap city. ”

A spokesperson for the PCC Commission rejected these claims as “incorrect” and referred Al Jazeera to the commission’s website. and protect the environment. ”

When asked for more specific details by Al Jazeera, the commission said the government was to provide sewage treatment infrastructure under a public-private partnership to cover the development, despite the Chinese company saying I sent a question to CHEC Port City Colombo.

The same PPP agreement will also make the government responsible for water supply, energy supply, waste removal and public transportation.

CHEC Port City Colombo estimates that the project will create an additional water demand of 39,000 cubic meters per day. That’s the equivalent of over 15 Olympic size swimming pools. [Stuart Heaver]

Given the overburdened public infrastructure in Colombo and the dire state of finances in Sri Lanka, some environmental activists and citizens fear that the authorities will not be able to plan and implement the large investments needed to respond to the PCC. Wondering if you have a budget.

CHEC Port City Colombo estimates that the project will increase water demand by 39,000 cubic meters per day in a country that experienced severe droughts in 1992 and 2001. That’s the equivalent of over 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It says it will be filled by state water authorities and encourages private partners to recycle their wastewater.

CHEC Port City Colombo also argues that building a large-scale renewable power plant for the project is “impossible”, but that “certain forms of renewable energy or We are exploring all means to see which combination is the most feasible.”

The company said the new multi-lane highway, known as the Outer Circular Highway (OCH), will meet the transportation needs of the development and will “provide a more pedestrian mode of commuting with many protected sidewalks and green canopies.” He said he aims to promote

While the CHEC port city of Colombo claims that the PCC is already “of great interest to the international community,” Mr Ralapanawe said foreign companies are seeking internal sustainability opportunities to reduce carbon emissions, waste. Failure to meet the targets may discourage foreign firms from investing in the project, he said. and water use, protection of the marine environment.

Many Colombo residents have expressed concern that Chinese investors could take more stakes in PCC if the project fails, but neither the government nor the developers have made such a move. No possibility suggested.

“PCC is a case of not thinking things through on a macro scale,” said Ralapanawe.

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