A huge environmental disaster in the making, the Sethusamudram project will cause irreparable damage to the fragile biosphere reserve. Moreover, the dredging project will lead to erosion in the coastal areas and also endanger marine species.
The ingress of the ocean submerging coast lands is an ongoing phenomenon linked to plate tectonics. Boats were tossed out like toys in Nagappattinam on 26 December 2004 when tsunami struck the Tamilnadu coastline.
The Gulf of Mannar near Rama Sethu (Adam’s Bridge) is a fragile ecosystem and any short-sighed policy of the government of India will put the entire coastline at risk.
The marine region is also referred to as Rama’s hotspot, given the intensity of heat flows, apart from evidences for dormant volcanoes (Mannar volcanics are dated back to 105 million years), the region is riddled with fault lines.
The report in Nature magazine of issue dated 6 September 2007 points to the continuous movement of tectonic plates evidenced by a tsunami in 1762 and again in 2004 which pointed to the high probability of another tsunami which will be more devastating than the one which occurred in December 2004 when 260,000 lives were lost.
This impending tsunami is stated to put 60 to 70 million people along the coasts of Bay of Bengal at risk.
Professor CSP Iyer with whom I have been associated and who participated in an international seminar on Scientific and Security Aspects of Sethusamudram Project had pointed out that the project which cuts through Rama Sethu should be shelved.
The project would destroy the remarkable natural tsunami-protection wall — Rama Sethu with unpredictable consequences on ocean current flows and even climate systems, aspects which should be subjected to detailed multi-disciplinary and scientific studies.
Unlike the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, Rama Sethu has always been called a bridge since it connected India and Sri Lanka as a land-bridge across the Indian Ocean (Gulf of Mannar bioreserve which harboured a rich and unique ecosystem). Professor Iyer has now participated in the Centre for Innovation in Science and Social Action (CISSA), a Thiruvananthapuram-based group of scientists, technologists and environmental activists which urged the Central government to shelve the the shipping canal project
The canal project had the potential to trigger a series of ecological catastrophes along the Indian coast in the long run, apart from the adverse environmental impact which would be immense. The excavation of the region and effluents from ships will impact on the rich biodiversity all along the Indian coast. The panel led by Professor Iyer who is also former head of Centre for Marine Analytical Reference and Standards (CMARS) said the proposed realignment of the shipping canal to avoid the Adam’s Bridge was not a solution.
‘From 1961 onwards, four alignments were considered for a navigable route connecting the east and west coasts of India,’ the panel said. Iyer noted that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the Sethu project had failed to take into account the tsunami or the frequent cyclones hitting the east coast. Dr Rajendran of the Centre for Earth Science Studies said the EIA had not considered the high sedimentation rate of the Palk Bay.
Apart from navigational hazards resulting from a mid-ocean channel passage being subjected to periodic cyclones making it extremely risky to salvage a grounded vessel, continuous navigation is likely to trigger ecological imbalance, affect habitats of aquatic resources such as corals, sea-cow (dugong), green turtle and affect the lives of millions of coastal people whose livelihood is integrally linked to the marine biosphere with 24 marine national parks hugging the coastline of southern India.
Olive Ridley turtles which migrated between Setutirtha (India) and Mahatittha (Sri Lanka) would face extinction. The breeding grounds of over 3,500 aquatic species of flora and fauna would be lost when waters from Bay of Bengal rush into the Gulf of Mannar in a constant stream through a channel created by the Sethu project.
Sea grasses and manila reefs (algae) are photoplyktons accounting for the free oxygen of the ecosphere, mitigating the ill-effects of carbon dioxide. The reefs slow-down the waves and act as a natural protection against the onrush of sea currents and thus prevent erosion of the coasts.
It will be a travesty of development if such a situation is created by cutting a channel through a natural barrier of reefs, sand banks and stone constituting Rama Sethu. Over 80 Sri Lankan islands would be at risk of erosion and getting flooded. In fact, 34 Sri Lankan experts have warned that any damage to the limestone fresh water caves in Rama Sethu is likely to devastate fresh water supplies to Jaffna (Sri Lanka) and Rameswaram (India).
The last tsunami brought in a huge volume of sediments into the Palk Bay - Gulf of Mannar that in some places, the sea bed had risen by as much as 200 metres. It is a nightmare even to contemplate a scenario of oil spills if 30,000 DWT vessels carrying oil products were to pollute the ecosphere.
To be concluded
(The author is a scholar and director of Sarasvati Research Centre)