Sethusamudram shipping canal: An invite to calamity?

Sethusamudram is the shallow sea that separates Tamil Nadu, India from Sri Lanka. It encompasses the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait (it also covers a shoal of islands and bays that separate them, called Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge). With a depth of less than 10 meters across its length, Sethu was formed as a part of a land bridge that joined Sri Lanka to the continent of Asia during the last ice age.

The coast of India does not have a continuous navigation channel connecting eastern and the western coasts. Consequently, the ships travelling from the western countries or the western coast of India to the eastern countries like China, Bangladesh etc or the eastern coast of India, have to steer around the entire Sri-Lankan coastline. The water passage connecting the two is quite shallow and unsafe for movement of ships. This shallow water bridge is called the Adam’s Bridge, which is located southeast of Rameshwaram and connects Talimannar coast of Sri Lanka.

The Sethusamudram canal project aims to link the Palk Bay with the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka via a shipping Canal.

The canal will help reduce distance and save time, not only for the daily tourists but also for the Indian Navy which has to cross through the entire Sri-Lankan coast to reach the opposite direction. The channel will allow the sailing of ships from eastern to western coast of India through internal territorial waters, thus, thwarting the long sail around Sri-Lankan coastline.

Though the Canal will give India a grip at the detached coastlines, it will also sink our enthusiastic boats in risky waters. With the pros being a treat for the country, we need not lose track of the cons this project boldly exhibits.

With the absolute wipe out of the large biodiversity in the Gulf of Mannar, it surely seems less of an environmental boon. It has also raised questions of risk for sedimentation due to cyclonic disturbance. These are some of the minor drawbacks which have instilled doubts about the project. But the primary hitch in the construction of this canal is the greater than ever possibility of being hit by a natural calamity like TSUNAMI.
December 26, 2004, though a devastating day for Southern India and Sri Lanka, displayed the role of the Adam’s bridge in the safety of many. Scrutinizing the same issue, tsunami is sure to hit a wider part of Southern India after the construction of the canal as the fatally large waves will have easier access to more parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, which were spared of wreckage the previous time.

The irony is that the political rule in India has no time to analyze the ups and downs of the dream project of the people living in Tamil Nadu. National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur (NEERI) completed its work on the Sethu project long before South India was struck by tsunami in 2004. All the Geologists, Earth Scientists, Oceanographers, Marine Biologists and other Ocean Scientists have jointly stated that the marine environment in Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar was radically altered after the tsunami. However, the report provided by NEERI does not give any helping hand in sanctioning the final project.
Moreover, the acute bends that will be built in the canal will obstruct the high energy waves from gushing through it which will in turn cause excessive sedimentation. With more and more deposition of sediments in the mid of the channel, the Palk Bay water will shallow down with time. The possibility of a cyclone or a tsunami already being high, the material for dredging will also increase gradually.

Hence, the Authorities need to sink their heads deep into the Sethu waters to understand that in the war of convenience and safety, securing the well being of all is the real triumph.

Sunakshi S. Nigam

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