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Channel to disaster
The Government is bent upon pushing ahead with the Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project. But what about the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve? What about exposing India's coastline to tsunami?
The Government agencies entrusted with this work (project viability research on the Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project) show an extraordinary enthusiasm to brush aside the uncomfortable questions, and keep the public at large in the dark..." wrote CP Rajendran of the Centre for Earth Science Studies, Akkulam, Thiruvananthapuram, in September 2005. Little further research has taken place in the past two years to assure people of the project managers' bona fides.
However, Government-run websitesethusamudram.gov.in, obviously in a bid to redress 'misgivings' of science-oriented people, gives some details of how the project's viability was assessed. It says -- the text ridden with typos had to be thoroughly corrected -- "The channel alignment has been selected as to ensure that there is no dredging in the Gulf of Mannar except in the southern reaches north of Adam's Bridge for a length of approximately 6 km and width of 300 m. No dredging will be required in the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve (which is along the Indian Coast) or in its north of Adam's Bridge (sic) is a safe 20 km from the nearest island (shingle) forming part of the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park."
Really? Engineers and ecologists who have challenged the project's viability say that the total quantum of materials that will be dredged from two different sectors in the SSCP stretch (as per the so far unchanged plan) amounts to 82.5 million cu m (mcm) of which the Adam's Bridge sector will generate 48 mcm, while the Palk Bay sector will generate 34.5 mcm of sediments.
The materials dredged from Ram Setu area will be dumped in the Gulf of Mannar region at 20 km to 30 km water depth within the Indian territorial waters about 30 km away from Ram Setu. Sediments dredged from Palk Bay will be dumped in the Indian Ocean at about 25-30 m water depth.
Dredging Corporation of India is assigned to carry out the first phase of dredging in the Palk Bay to the tune of about 13 mcm of sediments. During dredging, several environmental management laws will have to be observed including cessation of dredging during the fish breeding and spawning period.
Dumping 82.5 mcm in the turbulent open sea either in the Gulf of Mannar or in the Bay of Bengal east of Kodiyakkarai will generate turbidity in the water column and submerge large bottom community by the sand contained in the dredged sediments. Such environmental effect over vast areas for a considerably long span will have a long-term impact. (Source: Current Science, Vol 90, No 2, January 25, 2006)
The SSCP site is not convincing on the safeguards against cyclones and tsunami. The coast of Tamil Nadu overlapping the project area is the most vulnerable to tropical cyclones, research by PS Pant, AR Ramakrishnan, and R Jambunathan, "Cyclones and depressions over the Indian seas", in 1977 showed. This makes one recall dreadfully the cyclone that occurred on December 23, 1964, when a storm surge washed away the Pamban Bridge and the Dhanushkodi Island.
As for tsunami, a PMO note dated March 9, 2005, had voiced the concern about the sustainability of this canal in the event of a cyclonic storm or tsunami. This was a valid query from more than a purely hazard point of view. However, a statement by the Union Minister for Shipping, Ports and Highways later, stated that the canal would have a 'dissipating effect' on tsunamis if they strike the east coast!
A review of the post-2004 tsunami simulation models by Steven Ward, University of California; and Aditya Riyadi, the Pusat Penelitian Kelautan Institut Teknologi, Bandung, Indonesia, says that the central portions of the Palk Bay and those located to the northeast and the east of Palk Bay received waves of higher energy. On the fateful day of December 26, 2004, this part of the bay received higher amount of sediments, rendering it more turbid than other parts. Waves entered the Palk Bay from the north and south, corresponding with the canal alignment. Therefore, it is likely that the deepening activities create a new deep water route for a future tsunami to reach the west coast with a devastating impact.
A known expert in tsunami studies, oceanographer Tadepalli Satyanarayana Murty thinks that the Bay of Bengal entrance of the present orientation of the canal will funnel tsunami energy into the channel. Constructive interference with the tsunami propagating from the south of Sri Lanka at the southern part of Kerala will amplify the tsunami waves, which will impact the Kerala coast.
As for ecology, in the "Proceedings of the Regional Workshop on the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Coral Reefs," Chennai, 1997, A Ramesh and T Kannupandi were apprehensive that SSCP would adversely affect the Palk Strait which is about 75 km-wide between India and Sri Lanka, with a water depth of 9 m to 13 m, except where local coral reefs rise above the sea level. A total of 61 species of algae are distributed among the three major groups - green algae (14 genera and 28 species), brown algae (eight genera and 13 species), and red algae (17 genera and 20 species). Of the 14 species of seagrasses under six genera known from Indian seas, 11 species are known to occur in the Palk Bay, according to K Venkataraman and M Waffar (Indian Journal of Marine Sciences, 2005).
S Bhupathy has, while writing in the Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter, identified five species of sea turtles that live in the region - green turtles, hawksbills, olive ridleys, leatherbacks and loggerheads. He says this important feeding ground for the green turtles and olive ridleys will be badly disturbed by the SSCP.
A report by the Global Environment Facility, 1999, says the region has 3,600 species of plants and animals. A study by G Kelleher, C Bleakley, and S Wells of World Bank and the World Conservation Union identified 117 species of corals belonging to 37 genera inhabiting the region.
In 2004, the National Environmental and Engineering Research Institute instituted an Environmental Impact Assessment study. The EIA report stated that "the corals along the proposed channel alignment in Adam's Bridge do not exist though major groups of biological resources like sea fans, sponges, pearl oysters, chanks and holothuroids at various sampling points have been recorded."
At another place, however, it admits, "Due to dredging, the bottom flora and fauna on an area of about 6 sq km along the channel alignment in Adam's Bridge and about 16-17 sq km in Palk Bay/Palk Strait area will be lost permanently." L&T Ramboll, the private assessee, also mentions the same in its Detailed Project Report.
The Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, mandates that the SSCP seek permission and clearance of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (if the species were in Schedule I and from Chief Wildlife Warden of Tamil Nadu for species other than those under Schedule I). There is no evidence that the project authorities took measures to inform the State Board for Wildlife, or the Chief Wildlife Warden of Tamil Nadu, or the Central Government of the loss of these species by the project activities.
All of the above leads to one unquestionable conclusion: The project's feasibility analysis is superficial. It skips significant aspects of sub-surface geology, bathymetry, sedimentation process, effect of transport, impacts of monsoon, cyclones, storm surges, consequences of dredged disposal and impacts on biodiversity and fisheries, untouched.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer; September 17, 2007)