Skip to comments.India plans to dredge sea canal
Posted on 04/21/2005 2:04:23 AM PDT by CarrotAndStick
A scheme to make the shallow strait between India and Sri Lanka navigable has upset environmentalists and the port of Colombo. To its supporters, it is a dream project, no less than the Suez of the east; to its opponents it is an environmental catastrophe. Either way, plans to dredge a channel in the seabed between India and Sri Lanka will be controversial, and could alter maritime and military operations in the Indian Ocean.
The $400m project, called the Sethusamudram Ship Canal, involves digging a 152km, 300m-wide channel through the Palk Strait, a shallow stretch of sea separating the south Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka. If it is created, it will carve out a continuous navigable sea route around India, and reduce the trip by a day for cargo ships that currently need to go around Sri Lanka.
P Chidambaram, India's finance minister, has called the canal a longstanding demand nay dream of the people of peninsular India. Building the canal is part of the Indian Congress-led coalition government's policy programme, inserted to soothe south Indian allies who want to develop southern ports and regional shipping.
But the canal has upset Sri Lanka, which has been involved in the project involuntarily; India apparently revived the plan last year without consulting its smaller neighbour.
The countries are enjoying their most cordial relations for decades. Sri Lanka welcomed India's rapid assistance after December's tsunamis and trade between the countries, driven by a five-year-old bilateral trade agreement, has grown to Rs69bn ($1.6bn, 1.2bn, £800m) a year.
Yet the proposed canal has raised echoes of past unilateral Indian conduct towards Sri Lanka. As one shipping company executive in Colombo put it: When India decides it wants something, it will do it.
A group of Sri Lankan and Indian ministers are now weighing up several controversies springing from the project.
The first is over the commercial impact on Sri Lanka's port of Colombo. The port last year handled 2.2m shipping containers more than any other port in south Asia. Because of its good geography and decades of underinvestment in infrastructure by Indian ports, Colombo is south Asia's hub port.
But Willie Mendis, professor of planning at Sri Lanka's University of Moratuwa, says if India digs the channel to boost its southern port trade, low levels of shipping traffic mean the region cannot sustain two hub ports. I fully agree that Indian ports must be upgraded but we must complement each other, not at the expense of competition but to benefit sustainability.
Another controversy is the likely disruption of fishing waters vital to 138 Sri Lankan and Indian fishing communities, many of which are still recovering from tsunami damage. Construction of repair yards and other onshore services to support the canal will also displace other fishing hamlets, according to the canal project's environmental impact assessment.
The biggest controversy is the canal's threat to the rich marine ecology in the tropical seas of the Palk Strait and Mannar Gulf. The area is home to rare and endangered species of sea turtle, dolphin, dugongs and whales. Corals and ecologically significant plants and algae are also found there. Environmentalists say a canal would destroy the natural barrier between the Bay of Bengal and the shallower waters of the Palk Bay. The Environment Foundation, a Sri Lankan campaigning group, says a canal would disrupt currents in the area, endanger coral reefs and lead to rising sea levels, causing the inundation of part Sri Lanka's northern Jaffna district.
The canal's main developer, a south Indian port company, argues that most of the sensitive biological resources, including coral reefs, are found near the coast and are therefore mostly away from the proposed route. They also say scientific models show currents are not going to alter significantly. But they concede there are threats of pollution from shipping. The developers recently accepted tenders to arrange finance for the project. And, according to T.R Baalu, India's shipping minister and a leading south Indian politician and supporter of the project, environmental regulators have given approval. Financial authorities in New Delhi must approve funds before any construction starts.
Romesh David, president of transport with the John Keels group, says the canal is inevitable and adds: The real driver for the project is [India's] defence and national security.
The shallow seas of the Palk Strait prevent large Indian naval vessels from patrolling the waters around northern Sri Lanka. A canal would help India's navy deploy into the region faster.
They'll only be happy when the apes take over...
"damn dirty apes"
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Note: this topic is dated 4/21/2005.