Port of Colombo Development Project

Port of Colombo Development Project
Reasons for taking up this project

The Port of Colombo, a harbor in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is located on and faces marine shipping routes connecting Europe and Asia. The port was developed around 1875 as a shipping point for tea and spices under British colonial rule, later functioning as a midway point for routes to ports along the eastern coast of India. In the 1980s, construction began on container terminals and the port acquired cargo loading machinery through international yen loans – these were made possible by plans drafted with technological assistance from Japan. The port was able to make great strides as a container port, partially due to the trend toward the use of containers in the marine shipping industry, and it now has a container carrying capacity of 5.2 million TEU, the 27th-highest in the world (as of 2015, Containerization International, March, 2016).

The rationale for us (Japan Society of Civil Engineers) to conduct a study on the Port of Colombo Development Project is as follows.

  • 1)Though Japan’s economic support of Sri Lanka began with yen loans in 1958, more than 10% of those loans to Sri Lanka have been allocated to the development of the Port of Colombo, and hence, this project is a core facet of economic support for Colombo.
  • 2)No other single harbor has received as much economic support from Japan as Colombo has, and, with foresight of the container revolution beginning in the late 1970s among advanced nations’ ports, this port has developed into a container transshipment port for harbors along the eastern coast of India.
  • 3)As a result, the Port of Colombo has become a hub for container cargo, ranking 27th globally. This container intermediary business has become an economic force in Sri Lanka, supporting the nation’s economy through stable foreign currency receipts.
  • 4)Further, numerous Japanese firms had participated in the yen loan operations for the Port of Colombo during its consulting and implementation stage, when Japan’s ODA program was just starting, and this has served as a basis for the subsequent overseas expansion.

1Project Background

After the nation, then called Ceylon, gained its independence a few short years after the Second World War in 1948, the Queen Elizabeth Quay (QEQ), Delft Quay (DQ), and Prince Vijaya Quay (PVQ) piers were constructed on the inner side of seawalls from 1950 to 1956. These quays were built in order to shift cargo handling from the system of barges shipping between vessels anchored offshore to a system of vessels directly mooring in the port and on-loading and off-loading directly.

Then, after the assassination of the then-Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959, the political situation in the nation deteriorated, and virtually no investment was made in developing the harbor.

Location of the Port of Colombo
Figure 1: Location of the Port of Colombo

On the establishment of Sri Lanka as a republic in 1972 (it took its current title of Democratic Socialist Republic in 1978), policy dictated that it would invest in developing its own ports, and efforts for the extension of the QEQ pier began. However, as it took 11 years to develop 300 meters of quay – with construction finishing in 1980 – the finished quay did not have the cargo handling equipment necessary for transferring containers.

However, greater political capital was put into economic development policies under the administration of Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene, who took office in February 1978. Around that time, with the liberalization of importing and the attraction of export industries, the Port of Colombo’s cargo capacity began to grow. Further, although the move that began in the late 1960s toward implementation of container use in marine shipping was primarily seen in advanced nations in its infancy, the issue of handling this new container system was a major one even for ports in developing countries.

Plan of the Port of Colombo
Figure 2: Plan of the Port of Colombo

2Project Chronology

Formation Stage
1979–1980 JICA survey on Port of Colombo improvement planning
Execution Phase
1980 Start of Port of Colombo, Jaya Container Terminal I & II projects
1982–1985 Construction of Jaya Container Terminal I
(length 300 m, water depth -12 m, 9.75 ha)
1984–1987 Construction of Jaya Container Terminal II
(length 332 m, water depth -13 m, 9.94 ha)
Formation Stage
1988–1989 JICA survey on Port of Colombo development planning
Execution Phase
1990? Start of Port of Colombo, Jaya Container Terminal III & IV projects
1991–1995 Construction of Jaya Container Terminal III
(length 330 m, water depth -13.5 m, 17.6 ha)
1993–1996 Construction of Jaya Container Terminal IV
(length 330 m, water depth -14 m, 6.56 ha)

2.1Project Formation Phase

From 1979 to 1980, JICA conducted a survey on Port of Colombo improvement planning based on the context given above. The survey revealed potential for the port as an international container transshipment port – specifically that “there is expectation for the Port of Colombo to be able to provide international container feeder services (transshipment) given its geographic superiority” – and advocacy for resolving the “urgent need for container berthing.”

2.2Project Execution Phase (1)

Based on the said survey, it was decided that the development of the Port of Colombo would be undertaken beginning in 1980 and through the use of international yen loans. These loans were primarily used for constructing two container berths, named Jaya Container Terminals I and II (JCT I and II), with participation from multiple Japanese firms in their construction. JCT I was completed in 1985 (length: 300 meters, frontal water depth: 12 meters), and JCT II was completed in 1987 (length: 332 meters, frontal water depth: 13 meters).

2.3Additional Development Survey

After the container capacity for the Port of Colombo vastly surpassed expectations from the abovementioned survey, another survey was conducted – the Port of Colombo Development Planning Survey – with a short-term planning target of 1995 and a long-term target of 2001. In this survey, it was concluded that construction should begin immediately on JCT III and JCT IV, “in order for the Port of Colombo to handle the intense demands for international container transshipment and in order to firmly establish itself as a leading-edge harbor in the region.”

2.4Project Execution Phase (2)

Based on this additional survey, further container terminal construction was conducted under yen loan programs (the Port of Colombo Development Project). The JCT III project (length: 330 meters, frontal water depth: 13.5 meters) was completed in 1995, and the JCT IV project (length: 330 meters, frontal water depth: 14 meter) was completed in 1996 (OCDI30 History, Table 7-2 of Page 112 – Port of Colombo Development Project, Project Fees, and Development Surveys).

2.5Further Developments Related to the Port of Colombo

As the harbor’s cargo capacity consistently grew, facility improvements were made, such as the QEQ container berth on the opposite shore (yen loan program: “Port of Colombo Expansion and Improvement Project”). Later, the 1996 development survey conducted by JICA, entitled the “New Port of Colombo Development Planning Survey,” led to new discussions on expansion planning. Further, OECF facilitated projects with the intent to increase usage rates of the constructed container berths. The southern port was developed between 2008 and 2013 under funding from the ADB(Asian Development Bank), SLPA (Sri Lanka Ports Authority), commercial support, etc.

3Project Features

The benefits of developing the Port of Colombo are as follows: (1) establishment of marine shipping; (2) decreased idle times for vessels; (3) increased harbor revenues; (4) increased revenue from visitors to the port of call; (5) decreased marine freight charges – these and other benefits span a wide range of potential areas in which Colombo’s strengths in the international container intermediary business are leveraged to benefit the economy.

4Learned Lessons

In getting ahead of the rapid shift toward the use of containers in international marine shipping at the time, the decisiveness of Colombo, the SLPA, specifically the Port of Colombo branch, and Japanese players allowed for the port to develop its container terminals and serve a key role in southern Asia as an important regional port. The events have shown that it is critical to draft appropriate plans and make bold development decisions for fostering regional development of a developing country.

Japan was also able to learn extensively through the participation of a number of Japanese firms in the planning and execution stages, which formed the basis for future overseas development.

  • 1) Suzuki, Sumio, Ph.D. Thesis, “Research on Benefit Evaluation for Transshipping Ports in Developing Nations” (2003)
  • 2) Ports and their challenges in a changing world –Reflecting on 30 years of OCDI’s Activities-(2006)(in Japanese), Overseas Coastal Area Development Institute of Japan

Three – way discussion was conducted on September, 2016, with three engineers who had worked for the planning of Colombo Port Development Project.


Yukio Nishida

Born in 1940, Graduated from Kyoto University in 1963, Worked for the Ministry of Transport, Asian Development Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency, Chairman (Fmr.) of the Overseas Coastal Area Development Institute of Japan.

Hozumi Katsuta

Born in 1950, Graduated from Waseda University in 1973, Worked for the Ministry of Transport, Embassy of Japan in Brazil, the Overseas Coastal Area Development Institute of Japan, International Cooperation Specialist (Fmr.) of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Sumio Suzuki

Born in 1951, Graduated from Master Course of Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1976, Worked for the Ministry of Transport, United Nations Economic and Social Committee for Asia and the Pacific, International Development & Environment System, Surveyor of the Overseas Coastal Area Development Institute of Japan.

This article is collated and presented by the Japan Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure International Cooperation and Contribution Archives Working Group (chaired by Professor Atsushi Fukuda, Nihon University).

Note that this article was produced with assistance from grant funds for port research from the Ports & Harbors Association of Japan, awarded in the 2015 round for “Research related to Archive Improvement for Overseas Harbor ODA Projects.”