Colombo: Scholars worried about India’s northern canal
by Arundathie Abeysinghe

If it goes ahead, the project would allow large ships to bypass sailing around Sri Lanka, thus reducing fuel costs; it would also allow India to enhance its geopolitical position. However, experts warn that the project’s environmental risks have been underestimated.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – A proposed shipping route between India and Sri Lanka will have a strong environmental impact on the island nation, according to environmentalists.

Called the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project (SSCP), it should go through the Palk Strait that separates the southernmost tip of India, in Tamil Nadu, from Sri Lanka.

At present, large ships have to sail around the island since the strait has a depth of less than 10 metres, and in one point called Adam's bridge or Rama bridge (Rama Setu), a strip of land had once united the two countries.

On 12 January, Tamil Nadu's State Assembly urged India’s central government to implement the project after years of hesitation.

For several scholars who spoke to AsiaNews, “creating a canal in the shallow sea dividing the two countries would save on coast-to-coast journey time and promote development of Tamil Nadu.”

At present, the distance between Cape Comorin and Chennai is 755 nautical miles and this would be cut to 402, with 36 hours shaved off travelling time, with savings in fuel costs.

The SSCP would become one of the most strategic and busy sea routes in the world, enhancing India’s geopolitical position.

Currently, ships sailing from India’s west coast and western countries to the east coast of India, Bangladesh and China have to go  around Sri Lanka.

“Sri Lanka has an environmental impact assessment procedure for coastal conservation,” said ecologist Manishka Ranaraja; “yet, SSCP was not brought under its jurisdiction as it (the project) was to be within India’s territorial waters”.

While “the environment impact assessment (EIA) project carried out by India alluded to Sri Lanka,” it was “only in passing;” hence, “Sri Lankan environmental groups call for a joint Indo-Lankan environmental and a social impacts assessment.”

Research published in 2016 by General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University, which is run by Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence, looked at the canal’s environmental impact.

It concluded that the Indian research neglected “the latest studies carried out by specialist groups on sedimentation dynamics in the Palk Bay”, overlooking the “major risks inherent in that cyclone-prone area.”

Researchers cited Article 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and emphasised the need to protect the environment and apply precautionary measures.

In 2005, Sri Lanka sought to set up a standing joint mechanism for information exchange on SSCP with a joint database on hydrodynamic modelling, environmental measures, and impact on fish resources.

For scholars, the proposed project violates the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and  Sri Lanka could resort to it for redress, if the SSCP is implemented.

The Palk Strait is home to “over 3,600 species of plants and animals, including 117 types of corals, 17 types of mangroves, sea turtles, whales, and dolphins, said scholar Shirantha Weerakoon.

“Dredging the channel could stir up silt and toxins found in the seabed, affecting marine life. The SSCP presents important problems that should not be ignored.”