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A canal to riches or environmental disaster ?

by Rohan Canagasabey

There has been a flurry of media reports on India's proposed Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project since the Indian Union Cabinet approved the financial vehicle for it three weeks ago.

This envisages dredging a canal upto 12 meters in depth with a total length of 260 km in India's territorial waters through the shallow Palk Straits and across the Adams Bridge linking it to the Gulf of Mannar to enable ships to travel from either side of India's coast, thus considerably reducing the present 400 nautical mile voyage circumnavigating Sri Lanka. Therefore on face value, it can be appreciated that this project is a legitimate one for India to undertake.

The project was reportedly first proposed by a British engineer over 100 years ago, but at a time when environmental concerns were hardly considered, if at all. And when geological factors or disruption of weather patterns due to a change in sea temperature caused by connecting two bodies of water were hardly understood and only marginally more comprehended now.

Lareef Zubair and K.T. Rajasingham separately highlighted these unknown factors in 1999 with their possible devastating effects on Sri Lanka, but these do not appear to be part of the main focus in recent media reports on the project

Environment Foundation Limited (EFL) pointed out the probable impact on the Gulf of Mannar of joining this eco-system with that of the Bay of Bengal via the canal. "At present these two ecosystems are connected at the level of a few meters depth, but the canal will enable organisms and species, which exist at a greater depth and are uncommon to either eco-system to enter the seafood chain and possibly cause irreparable damage, particularly in the Gulf of Mannar", said Vinod Moonasinghe of EFL, adding that "fish stocks could also be depleted by foreign factory fishing ships being able to operate there".

In respect of the trade factor, a Daily News report of September 17, 2004 quoted Government Minister Mangala Samaraweera as stating that "there will be adverse effects on international traffic using the Colombo Port and also on the envisaged ports in Galle and Hambantota", as these ports will no longer be on the only sea route through the Indian Ocean. Tamil Nadu politicians of all hues have mooted this project for many decades, as the ports at Tuticorin and Chennai are expected to benefit from increased transhipment of cargo.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, being aware of the detrimental effect of Sethusamudram on Colombo's Port, as 60% percent of its business is Indian feeder cargo, sought to negate its necessity in terms of increased prosperity to Tamil Nadu by proposing a road and rail bridge from Talaimannar to Rameswaram, along Adams Bridge. This would also have generated greater trade between Sri Lanka and the four Southern Indian states and enabled these Indian states to have easier access to global markets via Colombo Port,'' said Professor Willie Mendis, Senior Professor in Planning at University of Moratuwa.

But as media reports have indicated, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Ms Jayalalitha is opposed to even a ferry service, as well as the bridge, sighting security concerns emanating from Sri Lanka's unresolved ethnic conflict and her present hostility to the LTTE.

A Colombo-based Indian Diplomat argued "there is no logistical reason why the bridge and the canal cannot both be constructed, as it is not necessarily a case of one or the other". However, even if a bridge is constructed over the canal, Colombo Port's cargo rates will need to be less than the Indian Ports' rates to attract business.

A daily newspaper published an open letter by the Editors of Bangkok-based Asian Tribune to T.R. Baalu, Indian Union Minister of Shipping, on June 7. It stressed the unknown geological consequences that could lead to large tracts of coastal land from Puttalam northwards and including the Jaffna Peninsula, eventually subsiding into the sea as these areas sit on bed of Miocene Limestone and not rock, which stretches into Tamil Nadu. "The process of land subsidence may not happen immediately, but there is every likelihood ... in the distant future", said K.T. Rajasingham in an article in a Sunday newspaper on January 17 1999.

The Jaffna Peninsula is first likely to suffer from an adverse change in salinity levels, according to EFL. Meanwhile Manitham a Tamil Nadu human rights organisation, as indicated in a further report by Asian Tribune on July 14, also raised the possibility of adverse geological consequences. Vinod Moonasinghe of EFL agreed, saying, "the long-term environmental consequences are unknown, in digging a canal even just above a bed of Miocene Limestone, which is very brittle and also because the earth's crust here is still not settled as Sri Lanka is now slowly drifting away from India".

Lareef Zubair as a research fellow at the Institute of Fundamental Studies (IFS) and now at Columbia University, USA, highlighted in a Sunday newspaper on February 14, 1999 that currents flow along both sides of the Indian sub-continental peninsula and converge at either side of Sri Lanka.

He used an oceanographer model of Professor Debashis Sengupta at the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, which revealed that if a canal was programmed for the Palk Straits, water gushed through distorting the regional oceanography.

Zubair added that "as the currents increase the canal may be gorged wider and deeper and may eventually not go around Sri Lanka". He pointed out, "Many of our harbours and other coastal structures may become vulnerable as they have been designed based on present oceanography".

Furthermore, Zubair stated that "Indian scientists have shown that clouds due to oceanic convection will not form unless the sea temperature is above 27c... and as the seas around Sri Lanka are close to this threshold, a slight change can push it across this threshold".

Therefore he argues that any reduction in sea temperature caused by changes in sea currents due to the canal will mean droughts get more severe, if that is imaginable. These concerns were echoed by Ranjith Dissanayake, Deputy President, Eksath Sinhala Maha Sabhawa in a letter published in this paper on 5th September.

The Sri Lankan correspondent of the Hindustan Times in an extensive article on June 17 in response to Asian Tribune's letter in the same daily newspaper, sought to disparage these issues by quoting Rajasingham and Zubair and then quoting a scientist from IFS, Kandy who stated that the fears raised by these two writers should be ignored as they were assumptions and not based on scientific data.

These fears appear to have been aired to elicit further scientific study and was not presented as scientific fact. An analysis that EFL also agreed with, adding, "If you took that approach we should not seek to minimise the effects of global warming until we have conclusive data, by which time it will be too late".

India's National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) based in Nagpur carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report conforming only to Indian regulations. The provisional executive summary of NEERI's EIA was posted at Tuticorin Port's website at www.tuticorinport.com/sethusamudram.htm in June, but so far not the full EIA report. "Sri Lanka is a primary stakeholder as the canal is along the international maritime boundary and the environmental impact on Sri Lanka has not been considered by India", said EFL.

Nature after all, does not recognise human demarcated boundaries. A www.newindpress.com report republished in a local newspaper on 14th September reported that Indian Union Environment Minister, A.Raja, was told by his senior colleague T.R. Baalu, Union Shipping Minister, "not to overstate environmental concerns over the prestigious project".

If this project has become one of prestige and also of commerce, going by the several Indian Internet media reports on its financial benefits during the last few months, one can legitimately ask if environmental concerns are being overlooked.

"A joint Indo-Sri Lanka EIA should be conducted comprising marine biologists, oceanographers and geologists and its results analysed before India decides to proceed with this project", said EFL. As construction has not yet begun, this can still be done, given the political will on both sides of the Palk Straits.

The Sri Lankan Government last week formed an inter-ministerial committee to study the implications of India's Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project, which included the Environment Minister and hopefully will result in all these issues being taken into consideration.

The Sethusamudram project also poses the question whether SAARC is about co-operation or Indian dominance, in respect of the project's negative implications to Colombo Port. More seriously, there are unanswered questions on its long-term environmental consequences for Sri Lanka, which can be allayed by a full public disclosure of an independent study by a panel of eminently qualified scientists.

Until such time, one should not fall prey to accusations of scare-mongering with regard to the possible destruction of large coastal areas of Sri Lanka and disastrous alterations to our weather patterns, which should be considered a threat to Sri Lanka's sovereignty and not just as environmental issues.

To be silent in the face of this threat may prove in the future to have been an unparalleled act of treachery, by which time it could not be rectified!