Sri Lankan environmentalists urged the government to take up the Sethusamudram project as a top priority issue with Indian leaders as the shipping canal that India plans to dig off its southern coast could have disastrous consequences for the marine and coastal ecosystems in the island nation.
On the eve of the President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s visit to New Delhi to meet the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, Sri Lankan environmentalists have called on the government to make high level representations to Indian authorities on the controversial Sethusamudram ship canal project, before it is too late.
“Sri Lanka is still not cleared of all likely negatives resulting from the project, including possible implications on the monsoonal rain patterns which the country's agricultural sector is solely dependant on,” a leading environmentalist said at a seminar organised by the Green Movement of Sri Lanka at the Mahaweli Centre. “The canal project could trigger unforeseen environmental impacts that would be detrimental in the longer run other than the predicted ones like irreversible damage to the rich marine ecosystem and environment pollution.”
The seminar was attended by academics, diplomatic community, local environment groups and Green Peace, India. Citing reports by Indian academics and environmental experts, Sri Lankan environmentalists pointed out that the Indian EIA lacks an adequate assessment of how the marine environment would be affected by dredging and also possible blasting if hard rock is encountered under the soft sediment.
The Sethusamudram project proposes to dig a 300m wide and 20 m deep shipping canal in the Palk Straits, the narrow sea stretch dividing India and Sri Lanka. The project, costing US $ 550 million is aimed at connecting India's western and eastern coasts for ship movement without circumnavigating Sri Lanka. Only small fishing boats can pass through the Palk Strait at present and vessels of up to 30,000 tonnes, including Indian Navy patrol vessels have to circumnavigate Sri Lanka to sail from Indian west coast to east and vice versa.
The Sethusamudram project was initially prepared 20 years ago and after a long debate it received the approval of the Tamil Nadu state government and the central government this month. The project, entirely in the Indian territorial waters involves dredging in two shallow locations in the sea including part of the Adams bridge.
The conference focused on the environment impact of the project as well as the role and responsibilities of the Sri Lankan Government with respect to the International Ocean Law.
It is still not clear whether the Sethusamudram project is on the agenda for President Kumaratunga’s talks with Indian Leaders during her visit beginning on Thursday. The main purpose of the visit is to discuss the tsunami reconstruction plan and the proposed joint mechanism with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Dredging in the shallow depths between India's southern tip and northern Sri Lanka could upset delicate ecosystems in the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve and Palk Bay and spell doom for fishermen from both countries, Sri Lankan environmentalists stated at the seminar held by the Green Movement of Sri Lanka. "No-one in their right mind would dig a canal between India and Sri Lanka... The environmental impact in Sri Lanka has not even been studied," T. Mohan, an Indian environmental lawyer told media. "We are talking about changes to the ecology ... sedimentation and risks to human lives if cyclones and tsunamis are to occur."
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