India's 'Panama Canal' is a disaster, warn ecologists

A A A

But the Indian government is cutting a shipping route through the shoals in what it is already touting as "India's Panama Canal". The finished canal, 167km long and 300m wide, will shorten the sailing time of ships from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal by more than 30 hours.

But environmentalists warn that the £300m project will be an ecological disaster, destroying precious coral reefs, and starving the endangered dugong, or sea cow. Local fishermen are protesting too, saying the project will kill fish stocks.

"An old wish is finally fulfilled," the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said at a ceremony to begin the Sethusamudram canal project in July.

A canal has been dreamt about since British colonial times. Unlike the Suez and Panama canals, which involved cutting through solid land, the Sethusamudram canal is a massive dredging operation. Around Adam's Bridge, the sea is shallow, varying from 10m deep to as little as 2.5m. India is using dredgers to cut a channel deep enough for ships.

The problem, Sanjeev Gopal of Greenpeace says, is the large amount of underwater sediment that will be disturbed by this dredging. He believes it will wreck coral reefs and affect the nearby Gulf of Mannar marine reserve. Home to more than 3,600 species, the Gulf of Mannar reserve has been designated as a world heritage site by Unesco.

Unlike a land canal, work on Sethusamudram will never stop. Underwater silting means the canal will have to be constantly dredged to keep it open. "[This] will spread the sediment far and wide," Mr Gopal says. "It will eventually smother the coral reef systems, and if they are smothered the reefs will collapse."

The Gulf of Mannar is renowned for its critically endangered dugongs. Mr Gopal says they too will be affected by Sethusamudram. "The sediment will make the water cloudy and prevent sunlight getting through," he says. "Sunlight is essential to the sea grass which the dugongs feed off."

As well as the dugongs, the Gulf of Mannar is home to sharks and sea snakes, and there have been sightings of humpback whales. Local environmental groups are mounting campaigns against the canal, but the Indian government insists Sethusamudram will not damage the marine life.

Sri Lankan environmentalists are furious that India did not even ask their government for its approval for a project that will have such a severe affect on Sri Lankan waters. But the Sri Lankan government, financially crippled by years of war with Tamil Tiger rebels, and coping with last year's tsunami disaster, is in no mood to argue with its far more powerful neighbour.

So far, the only government opposition has come from the state government of Tamil Nadu, within India. Environmentalists insist Sethusamudram is not only an environmental disaster, but a white elephant as well.

"When you talk about Panama and Suez, you're talking about saving 18 to 22 days of sailing," says Mr Gopal. "Sethusamudram will save one and a half days at best. Once you add in the cost of pilotage, a lot of commercial ships aren't going to use it."

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?