Turning Hambantota’s Salterns into ‘Goldmines’
By Buddhika Samaraweera
Sri Lanka has many advantages being an island in the middle of the ocean. The fishing industry and salt industry in particular are prominent among them, but it is doubtful whether we, as a country, are making optimal use of these resources. Considering certain facts, it is fair to say that despite the many benefits of the surrounding ocean, Sri Lanka has so far failed to reap the full benefits from the bountiful resource.
In this context, Nishantha Sandabarana, Chairman of the Lanka Salt Limited (LSL), told Ceylon Today that several steps can be taken to make the Hambantota Saltern a permanent profit making institution, which has from time to time become a for-profit and non-profit institution.
The salterns in Hambantota are making a huge contribution to the country’s salt requirement and employing more than 2,500 permanent and casual employees. The Bundala salterns also known as Maha Levaya and Palatupana Levaya are important salterns in Hambantota and the salt manufactured in these salterns is provided to consumers under the brand name ‘Lak Lunu’.
Many are aware that salt production can be carried out without any hindrance during the dry season, but it is difficult during the rainy season and the LSL runs losses at such times; sometimes making it difficult to pay salaries and other allowances for its employees. In such case, Nishantha said, if a plan is put in place to make the maximum use of LSL and marine resources, it will be able to sustain LSL as a profitable company as it will generate a steady income.
Recalling that there is much more that can be produced from seawater in addition to salt production, he noted that significant revenue could be generated through making such products. He added that although it is possible to separate sodium and chlorine from seawater in particular, the lack of attention paid to such products in Sri Lanka so far has blocked the way to earn a large profits.
Although the salt produced in Sri Lanka contains about .005 per cent sand, at present, the highest demand in the world is for salt with zero sand percentage, i.e., vacuum salt. Although the demand for table salt produced locally by foreign countries is low, there is a huge international demand for vacuum salt. Many factories in Sri Lanka also need vacuum salt, especially since salt with sand cannot be used to manufacture certain foods and beverages. Since vacuum salt has not been produced in Sri Lanka for a long time, it was imported and since the current Government restricted importations, it is also in high demand these days, Nishantha added. Therefore, it has become imperative to focus on local vacuum salt production as a permanent solution, he said. It costs a lot of money. However, vacuum salt production costs less than half than it does table salt. Due to low cost, best quality salt has to be sold at a low price technically. However, when the best quality salt is sold at a lower price, demand for table salt decreases, so we can sell vacuum salt at a higher price, he said and added that there is a possibility of exporting vacuum salt and that the most suitable environment for its production is in the vicinity of the Hambantota Salterns.
Sodium Hydroxide (Caustic Soda) is another product that can be made using seawater. Nishantha said that producing caustic soda requires fresh water in addition to seawater. However, he added that although there are no other salterns in Sri Lanka that have access to clean water, the production of Caustic Soda can easily be done at the Hambantota Salterns due to the availability of fresh water.
Nishantha also said that monthly electricity bills of Hambantota, Bundala and Palatupana Salterns would be around 2.5 million rupees and mentioned that if solar panels are installed; that cost will be zero while there will be many additional benefits.
According to him, discussions have been held with about ten private companies regarding the implementation of the project. A roof or other similar surface where sunlight falls is needed to install solar panels. A private company has agreed to construct the required number of buildings with such roofs free of charge. He said they have expressed interest in building structures without walls, which would be of much use for operations at the salterns.
“Covering salt stacks during the rainy season costs about Rs. 32 million a year. But if this solar panel project is implemented, we can use the shelters to store salt. It saves about 32 million rupees a year. In addition, 2.5 million rupees a month is saved from not having to pay the electricity bill. Also, the company has agreed to pay a sum of Rs. 2 million to the saltern. This is because they find it difficult to find large areas with sunlight to place solar panels. So, it is very advantageous for them to have a land like that. In addition, is mutually beneficial,” he said.
Mentioning the fact that there is a large area belonging to the salterns, Nishantha said if some sanitary facilities for tourists can be established in the vicinity of the Palatupana saltern located close to the Yala National Park, it could generate a large income. Tourists are constantly inconvenienced due to the lack of any such facilities in the area. So, if we can build something like a restaurant and a few washrooms that will be of great use to them as well as us, he added.
In addition, he said that nearly 600 acres between the 800-acre Palatupana saltern and the beach had not been used for any purpose, and that if some cabanas could be built for tourists, it could also generate huge revenue. He further said that various people have already built cabanas in the area without permission and noted that there was a clear possibility of building up to 20 cabanas without causing any harm to the environment.
Also, the Hambantota salterns employees are running a vehicle service station and if it is further developed a large income could be earned through this avenue as well. According to Nishantha, all vehicles of the LSL can be repaired there and through this development there is also a possibility of earning a considerable income through the provision of services to outstation vehicles as well. He said that it will be very important to provide training to the employees who are engaged in such activities in a foreign country or in a recognised institution in Sri Lanka itself.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and many other authorities have been informed about this and if their attention is focused on this soon, there is no doubt that the Hambantota Salterns could be a for profit institution thereby becoming a great model to revive other unprofitable State institutions in a very short period of time. Nishantha also predicts that the welfare of the nearly 2,500 employees and their families will be automatically enhanced if the authorities and officials are to provide him with necessary support to implement these ideas.