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Hazards from excavating the Palk Straits for shipping

by Lareef Zubair
Sri Lanka Meteorology, Oceanography and Hydrology Network

"Sri Lankan fears about the Sethusamudaram Canal Project is unfounded" is the title of a recent informative feature article by P. K. Balachandran of the Hindustan Times (The Island, June 17, 2004 and the Hindustan Times, June 14, 2004). What is proposed is to dredge the Palk Straits to connect the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal so that ships can pass.

The project is massive and has the backing of powerful Tamil Nadu politicians. There are risks to fisheries, risks to a stable marine ecosystem, increased coastal erosion, oil spills, pollution from ships, risks from sediments and toxins excavated and risks in the long term stability of small islands and of monsoon ocean currents short-circuiting through the Palk Straits.

Five years ago, after the Press Trust of India reported that George Fernandes, the then Indian Minister of Defence had inaugurated the project already, I, among others, raised questions (The Island, Monday 29th March 1999). The project was subsequently delayed due to political and financial reasons. With the new Indian Government in place, the DMK party of Tamil Nadu seeks to implement this project and it has obtained the portfolio of the Ministry for Shipping of India.

The Minister (T. R. Baalu) said in his first news conference that "the feasibility report is scrapped. No more waiting for feasibility reports ... A copy of the application to the state PCB (Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board) will be forwarded to me. I will ask my colleague - A. Raja, minister of environment and forests belonging to the DMK - ensure speedy clearance for the Sethusamuduram Project" (Asian Tribune, June 1, 2004).

Internationally, if a project risks disturbing the environment or proving a nuisance or hazard, then its proponent is required to ensure that the project is safe, that damage is minimized and adequate steps are taken to ensure that consequences are managed. The article by the Hindustan Times correspondent, however turns this requirement on its head and puts the onus on critics to prove that the project is risky.

Here the proponent, an arm of the Tamil Nadu State, is under pressure from state politicians to implement the project. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) team is usually under pressure to produce a report favouring the implementation of the project as the proponent pays them. The project approving authority is under pressure to ensure its approval as evident from the quote of the Minister. With the proponent, the consultants and the reviewers under pressure to expedite the project; will the Tamil Nadu authorities balance the risks and benefits to their citizens fairly? Although the risks for Sri Lanka are grave, there is no mechanism to review the impacts on Sri Lanka.

The article by the Hindustan Times correspondent questions whether critics have the information needed. They do not, because information has not been released entirely. There was no response to letters and emails sent to the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute requesting copies of the Initial Environmental Impact Assessment (Initial EIA). After two years, the Tuticorin Port Authority released the summary of the EIA. This summary while welcome is an outline that lacks substantive details.

For example, the summary EIA report dismisses the possibility of various small islands being submerged in the long-term and does not explicitly address the risk of dredging leading to ocean currents short-circuiting through the Palk Straits.

As another example, consider the proposal to manage environmental impacts in the summary EIA:

This prompts obvious questions, such as

  1. How will collision of ships with fishing boats be "totally prevented" when smugglers and militants have been crossing the Palk Straights at will for several decades?
  2. One of the selling points of the project is that India can use the canal for military operations. Will the warships be subjected to all these rules in emergencies? Will there be a ban on nuclear vessels?
  3. What if saboteurs and suicide attackers ram oil tankers or warships? Who shall respond to it on the Indian and Sri Lanka sides? What penalties will ensue if there is an oil spill?
  4. In case of failures or shortcomings in the EIA and project implementation, will there be an independent mechanism to compensate victims fairly and pay for clean up and restoration? Shall the victims in Sri Lanka be compensated?

Should such questions not be posed?

Compensation to victims of projects is often dragged along. Consider the case of the Bhopal gas leak in India that led to the deaths of 3000 persons directly and affected the health of half a million people. The survivors are still to be compensated after 20 years. The Union Carbide Corporation was able to use the legal no-mans land, when one pollutes overseas to avoid paying due compensation.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, USA was only ranked 53rd in terms of size of tanker spills although because it was close the coast, humans were tremendously affected. It brought about the greatest clean up effort in history, the greatest programme of scientific study, the greatest news media coverage and by far the greatest settlement for damages - all this was possible because of the infrastructure (legal, scientific, technical, advocacy, media) in the United States of America. Does Sri Lanka have such an infrastructure to deal with an oil spill? The damage even from a small spill may be grave as two coasts bound these shallow seas.

When the risks are grave, one should be careful even if it has only a small chance of coming to pass. With so much at stake, is offering Sri Lanka a summary of the EIA and a presentation in Colombo adequate? The Sri Lankan government should proactively conduct an assessment of risks, impacts and mitigation options and engage with the Indian side. After all, neither pollution nor monsoons nor toxins nor fish respect political boundaries.