The ambitious Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project initiated by India, is touted to reinstate Tuticorin, the Tamil Nadu sea port, to its former commercial glory. But it could spell danger to Sri Lankan marine trade. And more importantly, this threat may extend even beyond our marine trade. K. T. Rajasingham writes.
Sri Lanka is facing an imminent threat and danger of a man-made calamity in the early part of new millennium, when India proceeds with its ambitious Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project. Accordingly when India begins the cutting of a canal in the Gulf of Mannar region, there is the possibility for many islands in the west and northern coast to go under the sea. Also, may be a portion of the Jaffna peninsula could go under water, once Miocene era lime stone reefs extracted away and its continuity forcefully terminated. It is deplorable that India has decided to implement a catastrophic land subsidence program without taking into account the serious environmental implications it might cause to its neighbouring country.
According to an Indian report, all west-bound ships from ports along the east coast of India go around Sri Lanka, traversing more than 400 nautical miles with a duration of over 36 hours of shipping-time. But, once this project is completed, both Tuticorin and Chennai would become nodal ports. The distance from Cape Comorin to Chennai would be reduced from 755 nautical miles to 402 and Visakapatnam from 1,014 to 719 nautical miles. Also, from Tuticorin to Calcutta, the distance will come down from 1,371 nautical miles to 1,031. This project is expected to bring about considerable savings on fuel and navigable time to the Indian ships. India also stands to gain valuable foreign exchange earnings from toll collections of foreign ships, which will form 50 percent of the shipping traffic in the Sethusamudram canal.
Recently, Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes announced at Rameswaram that, the Sethusamudram Ship Canal project was conceived 138 years ago, will be taken up within few months for construction. The project initially was pioneered and conceived during the British colonial days, by Commander A.D. Taylor of the Indian Marines, in 1860, to link Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay.
Speaking about the "Dream-come-true project," after an aerial survey of the site, the ebullient Indian minister said that the construction of the Canal would be taken up in two phases. Fernandes added that the whole project would be completed within six years, under the direct supervision of his ministry of defence. "First phase of the canal project would be initiated shortly and expected to be completed within four years" said the minister. He elaborated that action would be taken to dredge 44 nautical miles of the sea-floor to a depth of 31 feet. It is understood that during the phase two of the implementation, the seabed would be dredged further 35 feet to enable easy navigation of larger ships in the Gulf of Mannar region.
From a general overview, the project looks innocuous, but on a deeper analysis the implications could be... 'deadly'. Indian Government has only assessed the economic benefits it would derive by this project, but ignored to delve deeper into the ramifications, consequences and calamities the neighboring Sri Lanka would experience, once the dredging of the ocean bed is undertaken.
Once the canal is completed, Indian as well as international ships would discontinue using the berthing facilities so far afforded by the ports in Sri Lanka, which would cause ports in the country to lose more than fifty percent of its present earnings. But, on the other hand, once the sea-bed in the Gulf of Mannar is dredged to make the ocean deeper for ships to ply, there is an imminent danger of destruction of coral reefs from the region. Coral reefs provide people with living sea walls against tides, storm surges and hurricanes. They also act as giant sand factories, creating limestone from dissolved minerals in sea water and leaving behind sands to keep shoreline from eroding.
The gulf of Mannar
The Gulf of Mannar is an inlet of the Indian Ocean, between South Eastern India and Western Sri Lanka. It is bounded on the north-east by the island of Rameswaram, Adams Bridge and Mannar island. The Gulf is 80-170 miles (130-275 km) wide and 100 miles (160 km) in length. The Palk Strait is 64-137 km wide and 137 km long. It receives several rivers including Vaigai from India and contains many island of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, Adam's Bridge is a chain of shoal, nearly seven in all, is 30 km long, located in the Palk Strait, between India and Sri Lanka. At high tide, it is covered by 1.2 meter of water. Sir Emerson Tennet in his book about "Ceylon" wrote, "The barrier known as Adam's Bridge which obstructs the navigation of the cannel between Ceylon and Ramnad, consists of several parallel ledges of conglomerate and sandstone, hard at the surface and growing course and soft as it descends till it rests on a bank of sand, apparently accumulated by the influence of current at the change of the monsoons."
Indian authorities included this entire sea region to be called as Sethusamudram. [Earlier, the Kings of Jaffna were called 'Sethukavalar,' means - 'protectors of Rameswaram Adam's Bridge' and the Southern sea that surrounds the region]. "Either because Rameswaram was under their sway or because the Brahman progenitor of their dynasty came from Rameswaram, they took the legend Setu (Adam's Bridge) as their emblem and seal. The fact that they called themselves 'Setukavalan' or 'Setukavalavan' clearly proves their dominion over Rameswaram." [Mudaliyar C. Rasanayagam in "Ancient Jaffna."]
The Union Government of India has taken a unilateral decision to dredge the Gulf's sea-bed, including Adam's Bridge, to build a shipping canal to enable ships to enter the Port at Tuticorin, located in the South-Eastern coast, adjoining the Gulf of Mannar, at an estimated cost of India Rupees 765 to 1,200 crores. Indian Government has so far failed even to notify its decision of cutting a canal to Sri Lanka, which is located on the opposite coast of the Gulf of Mannar. Sri Lankan Government so far has not expressed its concern regarding the proposed project. It is high time for Sri Lanka to take note of the impending danger that would loom dangerously once the project is implemented. It has to make serious protestation to India, as well as in all the available international forums to urge the Indian Government to review the project all over again and to rescind it, if the proposal is found obnoxious to Sri Lanka.
Mudaliyar C. Rasanayagam was the first to write about the formation of the Jaffna peninsula in his "Yarlpana Charitiram." He wrote - The present Jaffna peninsula, thousands of years before Christ, was two separate Island. The big island was called by the names of Maetkae-Nagathiepam (West Nagathiepam) Mani - Nagatheipam, Manipuram and Manipallavam, whereas the second island which was smaller in size located in the East was called by the names Erumai - Mullaithievu and Erumativu. Due to the frequent occurrence of flood and other natural calamities, the big island disintegrated into several small islands such as Karaitivu, Velanai, Mandaitivu, Pungdutivu, Analaitivu, Nainativu, Delft and the Valigamam region of the present Jaffna peninsula, but they were earlier a part of the big Island. The Island in the East, due to the shallow sea, it became the part of Vadamaradchy, Thenmaradchy and Pachilaipalli region. Due to monsoons, the accumulated sand formed into ridges and elevated the lower portions of the Elephant pass shallow sea and blocked the flow of water from the sea, led to the formation of the present Jaffna peninsula. Thus geographically, the peninsula came into existence by the merger of the portions of two islands. Peninsula with its sprout thrust into the sea, rest mostly on a limestone coral bed, that span the entire region, and over-topped with sand brought down by the tidal waves from the adjacent coast. There are ample of proof that, several rivers that were earlier flowing in those two islands are still active and flowing through underground channels into the sea. (Translation from the Tamil version).
A survey confirmed
S. U. Deraniyagala of the department of Archeological Survey, confirmed the analysis out forward by Mudaliyar C. Rasanayagam. When describing the physiography of the Jaffna peninsula, Deraniyagala in his The Prehistory of Sri Lanka, writes "The Jaffna Peninsula and the offshore islands - presents a monotonous flat landscape, with many of the physical features characteristic of limestone regions, such as caverns and sink-holes, brought about by the solution of the limestone along joints and fissures, as is the case with the northern coastal lowlands in general. There are large areas of blown sand, and this is especially marked on the eastern aspects of the peninsula and the islands." THIS goes to proof that Jaffna peninsula sits on the limestone bed and the limestone found in this region are too soft to be of any use. According to geological survey, it became apparent that these limestone beds on which the peninsula sits, extend far beyond the island of Rameswaram, "The present bed of Palk Strait, which separates India from Lanka, consists of Miocene limestone, suggesting that the Jaffna limestone formation is a continuous one, extending from north-western Lanka up to southern India." - [The Prehistory of Sri Lanka, by S. U. Deraniyagala].
"In former times there was no sea between Tutukudi (Tutucorin) and Lanka; but there stood the city of Ravana." - Rajavaliya. Earlier, Sri Lanka was a part of the South Indian peninsula, subsequently, separated by a series of lineaments in the Palk Strait region. Both India and Sri Lanka stand in the same continental shelf or platform. The shelf is shallow and does not exceed 70 meters in depth at its maximum.
This goes to prove that the floor-bed of the Jaffna peninsula and the 85 islands in the Western sea-shore from the peninsula to Galle (names of these islands and their respective areas in hectares are given within brackets, at the end of this article, for the information of the readers) are connected with the Miocene lime stone formation with Rameswaran which stretches continuously into Southern India. Therefore once a canal with a total length of 99.88 nautical miles is laid by dredging the sea-floor 35 to 40 feet below the present level, it would tend to break the continuous limestone formation, which would result in causing sudden tile, drift, gravitational pull and numerous other violent process also might take place deep inside the floor-bed of Lanka and its islands. This process of land subsidence may not happen immediately, but there is every likelihood of sea overcoming several islands belonging to Sri Lanka in the western coast and Jaffna peninsula along with several areas in the Western portion of the mainland inundated and gradually to sink into the ocean in the distant future.
Furthermore, Oceanographers view that a great portion of the Indian Ocean around the tip of the Indian peninsula is an ancient area in transition and has not yet completed its full formation. This section of the Indian Ocean has the most complex relief and the earth crust is still in motion, as evidenced by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Many oceanographers believe that this part of the ocean has developed differently from all other sections. Accordingly, it is understood that the cherty siliceous nodules in the Miocene limestone found in the sea floor are too soft, because they are yet to develop. Therefore, it is feared that excavating the undeveloped limestone coral reef would bring about catastrophic effect in the future.
Joao de Barros and Diogo do Couto, the two Portuguese historians, assert that earlier around Sri Lanka "there were more thirty thousand islands. Already in the time of Ptolemy, who lived in the year of our Lord 143, it appears that the sea had begun to cause this devastation: because he says that around Tapobrana (Taprobane) there were one thousand three hundred and seventy - eight islands." The History of Ceylon - from the Earliest Times to 1600 AD. Presently, we are only left with 113 islands around the mainland. According to a recent survey, it is feared that, several of these tiny islands are facing the danger of submersion.
At the 150 nations climate conference under the auspices of the United Nations, held at Koyota, Japan on 8 December 1997, the President of the tiniest Island Republic of Nauru, (in the middle of the Pacific Ocean), Kinza Coldumar, expressed concern and uncertainty, (as well as fear) regarding the dangers the small Island nations in the Pacific and Indian ocean regions are facing, as sea-water levels continues to raise. This rise is around two feet above the sea-level due to uncontrollable factors such as the global warming, El nino, an abnormal weather pattern that might cause the submersion of several small Islands. The uncertain climatic conditions should be viewed as a dangerous precursor for a future global change.
According to another observation, the sea level has already risen with an average of 10 to 25 centimeters over the past 100 years and the scientists expect the rising rates to increase, even if the climate stabilized because ocean reacts slowly to changes.
Therefore, it is unfortunately that even after 51 years of attaining independence, Sri Lanka, a country surrounded by sea, has not formed a department or a specialized agency to study and analyze the ocean around the country, with special emphasis on the implications of the vast ocean around us. As there is no government up to now have not taken up the issue with the Indian government regarding the proposed dredging of the Sethusamudram ship canal. Thus, the Government has to study this project immediately, with its environmental impacts, then urge the Indian Government to reconsider the proposal. This would save the island country and the small islands around it from any cataclysm in future.
-Weekend Express -16/01/99 & 17/01/99