Thursday, April 28, 2005

Sethusamudaram in a time of Tsunami

I had thought that the Tsunami shall put an end to the Sethusamudram project. This is a proposal by the Indian military and shipping industry to cut a channel for ships to travel from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal without going around Sri Lanka. The narrow channel, the Palk Straits is rather shallow, and the oceanic connection through it of recent origin in geological time scales. At some points, the seas are only a few meters deep particularly at Adams bridge.

Although there are extraordinary pressure gradients across this channel due to the South-West monsoon during the Northern Hemisphere Summer (April to September) and the North-East monsoon during the Winter (December to February) , the currents across the Palk Straits are rather minimal. Yet, nearby to the South of Sri Lanka, there is an oceanographic jet of high speeds that makes a spectacular seasonal reversal. The barrier at Adams Bridge ensures a relative tranquil sea at the Gulf of Mannar to its North and the Palk Bay to its South. This tranquility provides a delicate niche ecosystem that was sensitive enough to produce oysters and the endangered duggons now documented in the Gulf of Mannar marine park. If indeed, you cut through the canal, one may not quite know what the impact shall be. A real danger is that there could be a feedback loop - a small cut leading to erosion, which increasing the channel depth and section and that leads to greater erosion.

It is rather foolhardy to undertake this project where there are so many vulnerable people both in Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka. I had raised all this in 1997. If anything became clear during the Tsunami, it is how careless and incapable officialdom in both countries are regarding reducing the risk of the vulnerable and even taking care of those who suffer from their dereliction of duty.

The matter was then being pushed by the Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes with thoughts of dealing with the regional nuclear threat in mind. Lately, the mantle to push through the project has been taken up by the DMK, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu, and there are doubts as to whether a fair environmental impact assessment can be undertaken there given the promise of the Ministers of Shipping and Environment to pursue a favourable outcome.

It is in this context that the Tuticorin port authority put out a EIA report in outline. Many have raised questions. There are just so many assumptions in that report. In one place, it says that no leakage or accidents of ships will be permitted in the channel. How, this is possible when rebels and smugglers cross the Straits at will was not addressed.

It is only in the last year, that the new government in Sri Lanka even considered taking up the issue. Since that time, a panel of scientists led by the National Acquatic Research Agency has put together a Environmental Impact scoping report. In reality there is no data. Yet, its unfortunate that these scientists have not publicized their findings.

As important, is the principle, increasingly recognized in International treaties - which is the Precautionary Principle. This merely states that one should not undertake actions that can lead to extreme environmental and health impacts if one is not sure of the possible scenarios. Yet, those in favour of this project in India and some in Sri Lanka. They argued that India's experts have made their pronoucements and we shoudl all get out of the way of "development".

The oceanographical possibilities was reduced to a caricature exercise of a model canal through the straits. But nature is not so simple. And if there was any thing needed to prove it and wake people up , it was the giant earthquake and Tsunami which our respected scientists completely missed forewarnign of the risks of. Indian geo-scientists - like all scientists are fallible and the scientific infrastructure is such that basic knowledge is often not applied to protect the vulnerable.

While the scientists, policy makers and the contractors are derelict, its the vulnerable who pay the price. Now, we countenance the fact that the shipping Minister of India continues to lobby with the passive response by official scientific agencies in Sri Lanka as the vulnerability of its coastal population, leave risks regarding fisheries, and indeed the marine ecosystem based on so many unknowns. Have they not paid enough of a price from the Tsunami?