Hambantota – Sri Lanka
It is difficult to predict how plans for the rapid urbanization of Hambantota will work out over the long term. In the past, the community has relied heavily on fishing and the salt industry, which reaps a rich harvest in a large shallow coastal lagoon; most locals welcome the fact that new investments in the district are likely to create other forms of employment. A new container ship harbour is due for completion in 2012, and efforts are being made to boost tourism to the area, which hosts a range of attractive national parks and one of the most significant temples in the country, at Kataragama. Yet the rapid pace of development has already caused heartache and hardship for some sections of the community. For example, when work began rather suddenly on the construction of the new harbour, a large ‘harbour zone’ was declared and many houses were knocked down in what the locals began to call the ‘harbour tsunami’. Fishermen who once lived in close proximity to the fishing harbour have now been relocated into the more distant ‘new town’, making it harder for them to find work on the fishing boats. The area adjacent to the harbour is being cleared to create a new ‘beach park’ that is hoped will make the town more attractive to domestic and international tourists.
Located on the southwest corner of Sri Lanka on the ‘Silk Road of the Sea’, historically Hambantota received regular visits by Chinese, Malayan and Arab trading vessels and partly as a result of this trade, urban Hambantota—as distinct from the Hambantota District—is unusual in Sri Lanka in that it has a population that is fairly evenly divided between Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil-speaking Muslims.
It was severely affected by the 2004 tsunami disaster, and the current president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse—who was prime minister at the time—reacted to the disaster by fast-forwarding plans to make Hambantota a ‘second city’ in Sri Lanka. In the wake of the tsunami a whole ‘new town’ was established in an area adjacent to the old town, and in 2008 the Chinese government initiated the construction of a major new container shipping harbour that will rival Colombo harbour in capacity.
Hambantota has long prided itself on peaceful coexistence between the ethnic/religious communities and when authorities ruled that a popular mosque that had been destroyed in the tsunami could not be rebuilt in the same location, the whole community—Muslim and Sinhalese alike—rallied to rebuild it on the existing site, which had been given to the Muslim community by the British in 1904. Hambantota is certainly well located to become a major regional centre, a connected to major international shipping routes. How the community handles the transition from town to city, in a process largely directed from Colombo, remains to be seen.
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