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Tsunami casts doubts on Sethu project

PK Balachanddran (Colombo, January 31|15:50 IST)

The unexpected and vicious churning of the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, should make India and Sri Lanka jointly study its impact on the Palk Strait, where India proposes to dig a shipping canal, says Prof Willie Mendis, a Sri Lankan authority on ports and spatial planning.

"Post-tsunami, it will be appropriate to examine if the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project can be proceeded with," Mendis told Hindustan Times.

A senior professor at the University of Moratuwa, he said that it was possible that the flow of ocean currents had changed in the Palk Strait as a result of the tsunami, because the immediate neighboured had gone into a convulsion.

The Palk Strait and the coastlines adjoining it were apparently unaffected, but areas not too far away, such as Nagapattinam in the north, on the Indian side, and Point Pedro in the east, on the Sri Lankan side, had been badly hit by the giant tsunami waves.

"The flow of ocean currents flowing through the Palk Strait now, has to be studied before India proceeds with the canal project," Mendis said.

According to him, so far, no study has been made on the volume of water flowing through the Palk Strait.

The impact of the tsunami on the bed of the Palk Strait should also be looked into, he urged.

It will be worthwhile to look into its impact on the shoals (hardened sand mounds), which forms the "Adam's Bridge" across the strait. "The shoals could have shifted," he feared.

Scientists should also do a computer simulation of the impact of the tsunami on the canal, assuming that it was already there, Mendis suggested. Any man-made intervention in the shallow and narrow Palk Strait, like the digging of a canal, would lead to an increase in the volume of water flowing, and to changes in current patterns, he said.

If the canal were there, the tsunami's impact would have been very different, indeed, very unsettling.

Tuticorin on the Indian side, and Mannar and other places further south on the Sri Lankan side, which escaped the wrath of the tsunami of December 26, might have got hit, Mendis said.

Since both countries could get hit if the Palk Strait were to be subjected to an onslaught in the future, there should be a joint Indo-Sri Lankan project to study the strait in all its aspects, the Sri Lankan expert said.

According to him, the safety of the proposed canal and of the shipping that will use the canal, will be of relevance not only to India, in whose territorial waters the canal will be, but also to Sri Lanka, because the latter is only a stone's throw away.

The forces of nature are not bound by the barriers of statehood and sovereignty, as the tsunami so tellingly communicated to mankind, Mendis points out.

The constant dredging and the constant accumulation of waste due to increased shipping activity in the strait, will amount to a continuing human intervention in the strait, posing a constant threat to the environment, including the coastlines of India and Sri Lanka, Mendis points out.

"The underlying fact is that the ocean is very vulnerable and fragile. So any intervention in the ocean must be made after a thorough investigation," he suggested.

Professor Mendis points that while the Suez and Panama canals have land on either side to give them protection, the proposed Sethusamudram canal will have no such protection. It will be exposed to the vagaries of the ocean, he warns. This, he says, should be borne in mind.

"It is therefore imperative that the two states consult and cooperate on the issue of the Sethusamudram project and conduct joint studies from the point of view of both India and Sri Lanka," the Lankan expert said.

"It will be appropriate to examine if the project can be proceeded with. The inter-ministerial committee which the Sri Lankan government has formed should take up the matter with the Indian authorities," he added.

Paradigm shift in India-Lanka relations

According to Mendis, the tsunami has brought about a "paradigm shift" in India-Sri Lanka relations.

Both had suffered the onslaught of the tsunami. And despite being hit itself, India responded to an urgent appeal from Sri Lanka, and rushed its rescue and relief teams, which rendered an invaluable service in the hardest-hit parts of the island, showing India's deep interest in Sri Lanka's welfare, he said.

The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, had already set the tone for India's cooperative spirit by telling the Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, in November last, that India would not do anything in the matter of the Sethusamudram project, which might harm Sri Lanka, Prof Mendis recalled.

"Sri Lankans get very good vibes from the new Indian High Commissioner, Nirupama Rao. Her utterances and body language show a genuine appreciation of the sensibilities of little Sri Lanka," Mendis said.

"This is the best time for the two sides to discuss and evolve a joint policy not only in regard to the Palk Strait as a navigation channel, but on a whole set of issues, including the problem of intruding Indian fishermen," he said.

(PK Balachanddran in Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)