Oil spill disasters and Setusamudram — Sarvesh Kumar Tiwari

Oil Spill Disasters and Sethusamudram – I: A Total Loss Accident Every 18 years?

By Sarvesh Kumar Tiwari | Published 12/04/2007 | Strategic Security |

By the very nature, ships ply in a high-risk operating environment, and accidents are a painful reality.  Since shipping accidents and resulting oil spills can not be simply wished away, there are some pertinent questions to ask — what is the probability of such a disaster in case of the proposed Sethusamudram Channel?; What would be the impacts if such a disaster were to happen; What have the authorities done to prevent oil spills?; How are they prepared to respond to such a calamity if it were to happen? 

In the first part of this series of articles, we explore the first question – probability of oil spill disasters in the proposed Sethusamudram Channel and the factors affecting it.

On November 11th 2007, Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohan Singh arrived in Moscow, on what is being termed as the shortest trip — all of 28 hours – by any head of the two nations to the other in the history of bilateral relations1.

The Russian establishment was however pre-occupied with an unwanted visitor that had coincided with the visit of Dr. Singh a devastating storm in the southern Russian-Ukrainian Sea of Azov, leading to, as some are arguing, the worst environmental calamity in the region since the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986. 2

Severe storms had battered the Sea of Azov and Black Sea, sinking or throwing aground about a dozen ships and killing scores of sailors.  An oil-carrying tanker and a couple of sulfur laden freightliners had also sunk in the Kerch Strait that connects the two seas.  Sunken ships released over 550,000 gallons of oil and vast quantities of sulfur in the sea causing immeasurable damage to the marine life.  The environmental damage arising out of this was so huge that it can be easily compared to an ecological catastrophe.  At least 30,000 birds were being reported killed, while estimating the loss of fish and sea mammals was said to be beyond possibility.  Some of the endangered species were amongst severely impacted by the oil.  Environmental experts had expressed fear that the spilled sulfur would eventually result in even more dangerous, far-reaching and lasting consequences for the local ecosystem.  It might not be possible to completely recover the ecosystem from the disaster even in several decades to come if ever.

Even as the Russian President Vladimir Putin was welcoming Dr. Manmohan Singh into the Kremlin Palace, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov was preparing to rush to the Kerch Strait to coordinate the efforts of containing the disaster along with his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovych. (The Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait are shared by Russia and Ukraine as commonwealth without a boundary.)

It is very tempting to speculate whether the disaster attracted any attention of Dr. Manmohan Singh, who was in Russia right in the middle of this event being widely covered in the media, and whether the case of Sethusamudram Shipping Channel ever crossed his mind.

Whether Dr. Singh noticed this event or not, in this set of articles we set out to explore:

  • Probability of an Oil Spill disaster in case of Sethusamudram Channel
  • Potential impact on local ecology, if such an event were to occur in Sethusamudram
  • Preparedness of the authorities to prevent the disasters; and in event of a disaster contingency plan established by the Project design.

Oil Spills

Oil spill is a general term applied to the event of mostly unintentional and some times intentional (sabotage etc) exposure of vast quantities of chemicals, especially hydrocarbons such as diesel, crude oil, lubricating oil, kerosene, gasoline, heavy metal or other chemicals into the waterways: oceans, seas, straits, channels, lakes or rivers.  UNO’s International Maritime Organization and Greenpeace, identify oil spill to be the single most dangerous hazard for the marine environment.  Marine pollution by oil is of great importance because oil remains the major pollutant in terms of tonnage, and because of its particular effects to the marine ecology.

In most cases, a large oil spillage creates hazardous conditions causing both temporary and long lasting impact on marine life.  In very brief, the temporary effects are compounded by toxicity and tainting effects resulting from the very chemical nature of the oil, and the long term or lasting impacts happen because of disturbed balance of the local ecosystems, modified environment, diversity and variability of biological systems, and reproductive sensitivity of species.  As a result, oil spills can not only impact the local ecosystems, but also leave behind a serious economic impact on coastal activities and on those communities who depend upon the biological resources of the sea, viz. the fishing community.

The exposure of oil-pollution into ocean waters may happen through a variety of ways – such as oil-polluted rivers draining into sea, or leakages from an offshore refinery.  However the oil spill caused by the accidents of ships carrying oil – as cargo or as their fuel – happens to be the most damaging one because such exposures are most sudden, in locally concentrated volumes, and very hard to manage, limit or control.

Sethusamudram Scenario

On December 16 2004, Union Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee revealed a very scary set of statistics in Lok Sabha about the shipping accidents in Indian waters.  He informed that within six months between February and August of 2004 at least 8 large shipping accidents had been reported in the Indian territories leading to oil spills4.

With peninsular coast of 3554 nautical miles, India has a vast shore-line, and dangers of oil spills on her shores are as real as elsewhere across the globe where ships ply.  Historically, Indian shores have had their share of unfortunate accidents5 & 6.

By the very nature, ships ply in a high-risk operating environment. Even in the era of precision navigation and advanced communication, many ships still meet accidents in the sea, and many lives are lost every year.  According to the Lloyd‘s Register of Casualty Statistics, the number of ships lost as a proportion to the total number of ships in the world fleet was 1.9 ships for every 1000 ships in the year 20003.  Although this number is declining every passing year, but still this number is quite high and ship accidents are a stark reality of maritime.

Since shipping accidents and resulted oil spills are a dark reality, it is a pertinent question to ask what is the probability of such a disaster in case of Sethusamudram.

To reach an answer, we must look into the specific factors that affect the probability of a shipping accident, in the proposed Sethusamudram Channel.

According to marine researcher Necmettin Akten of Istanbul University, the biggest number of ship accidents happens because of human errors, followed by route conditions, then by weather conditions, and generally by a combination of these factors.  The density of vessel traffic, particularly in those narrow areas such as straits, channels, and port approaches, with likely insufficient sea-room, close-quarter situations are frequently encountered.  This also remains a large contributor to shipping hazards. 7

Meteorological Conditions at Sethusamudram

Roughly 7% of the total world-wide genesis of tropical cyclones occurs in the Northern Indian Ocean.  The coastal area between Pamban and Nagapattinam is highly vulnerable to storms and this stretch has been experiencing storm surges ranging 3m to 5m on several occasions.

Dutch shipping records of as old as 1627 mention: great storms that lashed the Coromandel Coast, wrecking 200 vessels from Sao Tome (as Chennai was known to them back then). 9 Even the British annals mention that it were the regular storms of the 15th century that broke off the land connection between Pamban and Rameshwaram, eventually making Rameshwaram an island that it is today.

Since 1877, the Indian Meteorological Department has kept records of all the cyclones and statistics of the frequency of their formation and movements in various parts of the basin.  And indeed, the record of storms reported in this area should be really alarming to anyone concerned with the shipping in this region. 

The coastal area between Pamban and Nagapattinam is highly vulnerable to storms and this stretch has been experiencing storm surges ranging 3m to 5m on several occasions. The unfortunate storm of 23rd December 1964 is a tragic example, when surge of waves reaching 5 meters high, washed away the entire Dhanushkodi Island and the Pamban Bridge along with a train full of passengers on it. 

Former President of India, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, who hails from Rameshwaram island, has remembered that event in his autobiography Wings of Fire: I was about six years old when my father embarked on the project of building a wooden sailboat to take pilgrims from Rameshwaram to Dhanushkodi, (also called Sethukkarai), and back.  He worked at building the boat on the seashore, with the help of a relative, Ahmed Jallaluddin, who later married my sister, Zohara.  I watched the boat take shape. The wooden hull and the bulkheads were seasoned with the heat from wood fires. My father was doing good business with the boat when, one day, a cyclone bringing winds of over 100 miles per hour carried away our boat, along with some of the landmass of Sethukkarai. The Pamban Bridge collapsed with the train full of passengers on it. Until then, I had only seen the beauty of the sea, now its uncontrollable energy came as a revelation to me. 10

Only two years later, in November 1966, a tidal bore battered Madras Port, which was again devastated more recently by the December 2004 tsunami.  In December of 1973, five meter high tidal waves were reported to have hit Palk Bay, exactly where the Sethusamudram Channel is proposed to be dredged.  In 1977, Nagapattinam was hit by a severe cyclone, and the next year Palk Bay was lashed by the strong storms with winds of over 120kmph. In November 1992, Tuticorin harbour was battered by high winds and waves, and in 1993 as many as 111 people were killed on the Karaikal-Pondicherry coastline. In I994, again 304 people died and 100,000 huts were washed away by high winds and rough seas that hit Chennai.  In November 1997, an oil-drilling ship, anchored with six anchors in the Cauvery Basin, broke loose from her anchors and was washed ashore by a cyclone. 9

Captain (Retd.) H Balakrishnan, a career mariner of Indian Navy with 32 years of sailing experience behind him, wrote: “We mariners, in a lighter vein, refer to the Tamil Nadu coast between Rameshwaram and Cuddalore as the ‘cyclone coast’. There are valid reasons for this quip. Of the 256 cyclones, 64 have crossed the Tamil Nadu coast in the recorded history. Of these, 36 were ‘severe cyclones’ (winds in excess of 90 kmph). More interesting, of these cyclones, six had crossed the Palk Bay, 14 had crossed the coast at Nagapattinam and three had crossed the Gulf of Mannar.  All these cyclones can have a devastating consequence on the shipping in the area.  The Bay of Bengal cyclones pose a clear, live and present danger to the safety of lives at sea. And, the SSCP is sought to be created in a ‘cyclone danger area’.” 11

The Prime Minister’s Office had raised its concerns on similar grounds about Sethusamudram when in its letter to the Tuticorin Port Trust (TPT) in March of 2005, it had mentioned: ‘The MET Department considers the coastal stretch between Nagapattinam and Pamban as a high risk zone for tropical cyclones.  A study entitled “Identification of Costs Vulnerable for Severe Tropical Cyclones, Statistical Evaluation” published in 2004 has named this coastal stretch as the most vulnerable to severe tropical cyclones among the many coastal regions of the Bay of Bengal.’ 8

While the reply from TPT came too late, less than a week before the project was to be officially inaugurated in July 2005 by Dr. Singh, and the answers were less than convincing, the PMO letter had rightly noted the history of severe storms and cyclones in the region.  What both the PMO and TPT failed to comprehensively discuss was, the risk of oil spills in a mid-sea channel in such a region which has had such a meteorological history.

The weather being prone to severe cyclones, depressions and storms, would be very conducive to the shipping hazards like straying, grounding, or collisions ultimately resulting in potential oil spill disasters in the region.

Channel Route and Neighborhood

Besides the bad weather conditions, shallowness or narrowness of the shipping passage also leads ships to seek the bottom of the sea, causing potential oil spill.  The proposed Sethusamudram Channel is long ‘ 167 KM, very narrow’ about 300 meters for a two way traffic, and above all, surrounded by extremely shallow waters — depths as low as 12 meters, and around the Rama Setu area the bottom of a passing ship will be only 3 to 4 meters above the ground.  Moreover, the sedimentation around the Rama Setu area consists of very strong and dense material.

Considering such operating conditions of the route, Meche Lu and Mark Chernaik, Scientists at Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, provide a perspective: “The transit of vessels through the proposed Sethusamudram Ship Canal would be akin to a tightrope walk – in fact a two tightrope walks when the two-way traffic starts – which even a small deviation from the planned route would entail catastrophic consequences: if for any reason a vessel passing through the canal went astray by a distance of a few hundred meters in Adam’s Bridge, such vessel would likely crash into hard seabed in a manner entailing a major release of fuel oil.” 12

They also cite a study on the Dover Strait of UK, in which, like the proposed Sethusamudram Channel, ships pass through a narrow channel surrounded by shallow waters. The predicted release of oil from shipping accidents there in Dover Strait is more than 230 tons of oil per year.   The marine environment in the vicinity of the Sethusamudram could also bear the burden of at least this much oil release, if not more, if we have to go merely by the narrowness and shallowness of the channel, they assert.

Channel is also not very far from the reefs.  Ships strayed due to bad weather or other reasons, have every chance of coming in contact with reefs.  Reefs and rocks have historically caused ship wreckages leading to oil slippages, as has been recorded quite a few times within the last decade, even in the Indian Ocean and the surrounding regions.  Some instances5:

  • October 29, 2007, Dominican Republic: A Liberian gas carrier SCF Tomsk grounded on the reef line after breaking loose from its moorings by Tropical Storm Noel at San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. It was carrying 1.5 million gallons of liquefied petroleum gas, 330,000 gallons of fuel oil, and 33,000 gallons of diesel.  How much of it was leaked is not yet known.  
  • August 1, 2007, Fjelsmumum: A 62-m Russian trawler MV Olshana ran aground on a marked reef off the Faroe Islands at Fjelsmumum, and finally sank.  A lot of oil had already leaked out by the time rescue operations completed.
  • January 19 2004, Philippines: An oil spill was reported after ship MV Island Explorer ran aground at the Apo Manor Reef. The spill took place near a protected marine park off Mindoro Island, and threatened to destroy one of the world’s best marine sites. The leaked bunker fuel endangered the reef which serves as a fish nursery, as well as the marine fauna, and luxuriant coral growth with more than 500 coral species, sharks, stingrays and manta rays.  
  • April 1 2000, Indonesia: About 160,000 kilolitres of crude oil leaked out from the tanker King Fisher, after it hit a reef while approaching the Pertamina port in Cilacapan, at the Southern coast of Central Java.
  • July 2 1997, Japan: A supertanker struck a shallow reef in Tokyo Bay, a famed fishing ground, leaking an estimated 1500 tons of crude oil.   
  • July 11 1995, Australia: An ore carrier, Iron Baron, ran aground on a reef in southern Australian waters, spilling more than 500 tons of fuel oil and causing a major pollution scare for the island state of Tasmania. Thousands of fairy penguins were fouled with oil. 

Reefs and such structures are found in abundance in the entire Sethusamudram region and they drastically increase the chances of a collision resulting in potential oil spill.

Potential sabotage resulting in Oil Spill

The source of the largest oil spill in the world history is not unintentional accidents – instead it is sabotage.  During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, both sides frequently attacked each other’s oil installations and ships, and per some estimates, as much as 570 million liters of oil might have been released into Persian Gulf.  The largest single oil spill event in the history was also the work of Saddam Hussein’s military during the Operation Desert Storm.  Beginning in late January 1991, Iraqi troops sabotaged oil terminals and ships, thus initiating the largest known oil spill ever in the world history.  For months, an estimated 495,000 liters of oil was spilled per day into the Persian Gulf. 13

Not only in the event of war between the nations, but also in the tactics of the terrorists, sabotage of Energy facilities and ships is always an economical, easy, and very effective tool.  Recently, destruction of a gas pipeline in the tribal areas of Pakistan by the Islamist terrorists was reported.  The constant fear of similar sabotage is one of the main reasons why India is still hesitant about an Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline proposal.  Such tactic is very common, even in strife-torn Nigeria.

Ships at sea are particularly vulnerable to terrorist strikes. Al Qaeda’s suicide bombing of US Navy’s guided missile destroyer USS Cole, while it was fuelling in the Aden port of Yemen on October 12, 2000, is still a fresh case in point.

Sabotage was reported to be behind a major event of oil spill in the Sydney Harbour of Australia in 1999, which threatened a major environmental disaster. 80,000 liters of light crude was poured from the Japanese ship Laura D’Amato berthed at the Shell Company’s terminal at Sydney.  Shell investigations reported the spill to be the work of an orchestrated onboard sabotage. 14

Sethusamudram channel is in a very close vicinity to the theatre of operations of LTTE, the largest and the most powerful terrorist-militant organization of our times.  Indian Coast Guards have been fairly busy in this very region, intercepting the LTTE boats smuggling the arms between the coasts.  Forceful hijacking of the boats from Indian fishermen by LTTE, and using those boats for smuggling, has become frequently reported news item in the Indian media for the last few years.  This shows how active the naval wing of LTTE is in this region.

So is there a threat to the ships passing through Sethusamudram Channel from LTTE, thereby causing oil spill? We must ponder upon two questions here.  First, whether LTTE has the required capabilities to strike the ships transiting in Sethusamudram Channel, and second, whether they might entertain any intentions to do so.

Colonel (Retd.) R Hariharan, a former Military Intelligence officer, who headed the Intelligence of Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987-90, recognizes LTTE’s capabilities.  He writes: “As the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is loose cannon in this region with control over most of the North Sri Lanka coastal region and the seas adjacent to it, this aspect assumes importance. As Sea Tigers, the naval arm of LTTE, have shown ingenuity in sea-based insurgency, it becomes imperative for India to ensure the integrity of the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait”. 15

Capt (Retd) H. Balakrishnan of Indian Navy provides another very frightening aspect of LTTE’s striking capabilities: “(LTTE) have carried out numerous daring attacks on Sri Lankan naval ships, and have not hesitated in resorting to suicide missions.  A new addition to the LTTE’s fighting capability is its ‘Air Arm’. They have to-date carried out three daring ‘night attacks’ on Sri Lankan assets. This factor adds a new dimension to the threat perception along the SSSCP. Reports in open source literature indicate that the aircraft deployed by the LTTE Air Force is the Czech manufactured ‘ZLIN-Z 242 L’ aircraft.  All the air attacks on Sri Lankan assets to date have been at night, indicating a high degree of proficiency. The SSSCP falls within the radius of operation of these aircrafts.” 11

Another analyst Nitin Pai concurs.  He writes, “The canal straddles the areas controlled by the LTTE, which has a small but lethal sea-borne unit. The Indian coast guard and navy are well capable of securing the canal, but the risk from terrorism cannot be ruled out.” 16

Commander(Retd.) GVK Unnithan also says, “during hostilities no sane naval commander will lead his fleet through a narrow, shallow and long canal for fear of hostile submarine activities”.

In summary, LTTE’s striking capabilities — sea-borne, air-borne, and of suicide operations – have the Sethusamudram channel and ships passing through it, comfortably within its striking reach. 

Now, would LTTE ever want to target the channel?  There could be various possibilities of why they may want to resort to it.  First possibility is this being a diversionary tactic — through an affected oil spill disaster they can divert the focus of Indian and Sri Lankan forces.  Other potential motivation is blackmail or ransom.  With their suicide squads, it is not beyond LTTE to hold a ship – and effectively the channel itself – hostage and push for demands.

While the Indian forces have enough and more counter-abilities to safeguard the transit, and yet, the risk of sabotage-affected oil spill in the region is undeniable.

A “Total Loss” accident, every 18 years?

The official estimates of the Sethusamudram project mark the traffic potential through the proposed channel to 5,500 to 11,000 ships per year.  The estimate is being disputed by the independent analysts, as having been fluffed up by the promoters of project to artificially prove its economic viability.  However, Meche Lu and Mark Chernaik consider this traffic estimate as the baseline and calculate the probability of an accident in the proposed channel. 

They conclude that going purely by the amount of traffic in the channel, and with the global accident rates prevailing world-wide, there is a risk of one “total loss” accident happening in the channel once in every 18 years of its operation.12 If the particular operating environment and features of the proposed channel are brought into consideration, the probable frequency of such accidents increase manifold.

A very scary thought for anyone concerned with the marine life of Sethusamudram, and for the communities surviving on its natural marine biology, like the fishing community or the Shankha-gathering and pearl-gathering communities of southern Tamil Nadu coasts.

Did the catastrophe of last week in Kerch Strait draw any pictures for us?


  • Indian Express, November 12, 2007 Putin Welcomes Manmohan Singh


  • MSNBC, Oil from Russian spill kills 30,000 birds http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21731529/
  • Lloyd’s Register http://www.lr.org/Industries/Marine/
  • Lok Sabha Archives, 2004, Parliament of India.
    • On 20th February 2004, MSV JAL JYOTI an Indian Registered vessel sank off Okha, Gujarat.
    • On 19th March 2004, MT DELTA 1, a Panama Registered vessel collided with MV APL Pusan and broke into two parts off Vadinar, Gujarat. 
    • On 31st March 2004, TUG TB MAYANG SARI, a Malaysian registered TUG sank outside Indian water off Nancawry island in the Andaman group of Islands.
    • On 13th April 2004, MV Genius Star VI, a Malaysian vessel sank off Sagar island near Haldia. 
    • On 28th May 2004, MV AZBUL BHER a wooden vessel Sank off Port Blair.
    • On 16th June 2004, MV DORSET a Korean Ship Sank off Mumbai Harbour. 
    • On 16th August 2004, MV KEN Explorer, a Liberian vessel ran ground off Gulf of Cambay.
    • On 28th August 2004, AL-SAH-IN-SAH HIND sank off Mundra, Gujarat.
  • Mariner Group, A History of Oil Spills http://www.marinergroup.com/oil-spill-history.htm
  • Greenpeace International, recent Oil Spills http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/recent-oil-spills
    • August 15, 2007 – 290 miles from the coast of India, Japanese-operated oil tanker Bright Artemis collided with a smaller cargo ship it was attempting to assist. About 1.4 million gallons of crude oil was spilled.  A very serious incident, but largely overshadowed by the disastrous spills in the Philippines and Lebanon which happened at around the same period.  Its complete effects remain to be studied.
    • May 30, 2006 Panama-registered ship MV Ocean Seraya, anchored off Karwar harbour stranded in the oyster rocks around Devgad Island due to bad weather.  The vessel carrying about 700 MT of fuel oil later split into two halves near Karnataka-Goa coast.
    • March 23 2005 – An Indian Barge MV Prapti collided with Singapore Cargo Vessel MV Maritime Wisdom resulting in damage to the fuel tank of cargo vessel. This resulted in leakage of approximately 60 tonnes of fuel oil.
    • April 2004 – Oil spillage occurred in Goa due to collision between an iron ore carrying barge “Prapti” and vessel “M.V. Maritime Wisdom”. Also see reference 4 for particularly disastrous record of year 2004
    • March 2001 – Merchant Ship MV Luncam sank 46 miles off Haldia port.  The ship was carrying 11000 tons of Ammonia Phosphate, 2200 tons of Di-Ammonia Phosphate, and 662 metric ton of oil.
  • Akten, Necmettin (2006) “Shipping accidents: a serious threat for marine environment”, Black Sea Mediterranean Environment Vol 12:269-304(2006) http://www.blackmeditjournal.org/pdf/2006_vol12_no3-5.pdf
  • PMO’s questions on Sethusamudram http://sethusamudram.gov.in/Prime.asp
  • Papri Sri Raman, “Cyclones, Tsunami and the Sethusamudram Project” www.boloji.com/environment/25.htm
  • Abdul Kalam, Dr. APJ, Wings of Fire
  • Balakrishnan, H. Capt (Retd), in THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 25-May-2007
  • Lu, Meche and Chernaik, Mark (2004),”Evaluation of the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Proposed Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project” http://tinyurl.com/38hjqs
  • Sumich, James L. and Morrissey, John F. “Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life”
  • Indian Express 1999, http://www.indianexpress.com/res/web/pIe/ie/daily/19990806/ige06056.html
  • Hariharan R. Col.(Retd.) (2006), “STRATEGIC SECURITY AND SETHUSAMUDRAM PROJECT”, South Asia Analysis Group, Paper 1713. http://www.saag.org/papers18/paper1713.html
  • Pai, Nitin (2007), “Dredging the Palk Strait: Sethusamudram is not a good route to development and strategic security”, Pragati — Indian National Interest Review No 7, Oct 2007 http://tinyurl.com/34va9g

Oil Spill Disasters and Sethusamudram – II: The Paradise Lost?

By Sarvesh Kumar Tiwari | Published 01/02/2008 | Strategic Security |

In the previous part, we have seen that Oil Spill disasters are an imminent danger in Sethusamudram, with a very high probability of occurrence because of its specific attributes.  In continuation, we now turn to look at what is at stake in case an Oil Spill disaster takes place in Sethusamudram waters.  We first survey the biodiversity in the region where Sethusamudram channel is proposed to be dredged, and then explore the specific impacts of oil spill upon the most vulnerable biological resources it holds.

“Then the pearl addressed the emperor: Rajan, endowed with merit I was born as a raindrop, and carried away by the massive clouds to the seas in south, where they began to rain, and a graceful oyster rose from those seas and absorbed me in her belly, and in due course I became this, a great pearl that you hold.”  –  From karpura-manjari written by Rajashekhara in around 900 CE.

“When you depart from Seilan (as Sri Lanka was known to the Europeans back then), and go westwards about sixty miles, you come to the extensive province of Maabar, on the mainland called India the Great, and which is indeed the noblest and richest country in the whole world. The largest and finest of pearls, best in the world, are found in this gulf between this continent and the island of Seilan”. – From the travelogue of Marco Polo written around 1276 CE.

The waters between Sri Lanka and India have been generously gifted with enormous wealth of nature.  The written historical accounts, spanning over several centuries, are full of description about how the unique types of pearls and conch-shells used to be gathered from these waters and distributed far and wide, and how the activity was a large industry supporting the foreign-trade economy of the South India and Sri Lanka.  The trade of pearls from here to the Roman Empire has been reported from as early as the first century CE.  Catholic evangelist Francis Xavier has also provided extensively detailed accounts of the pearl and conch gathering activities of this region when he lived amidst the fishing community of Sethusamudram in the 16th century.

For many centuries, just like the Saligrama stones coming from the Gandak river-beds of Nepal, Shankha conches coming from these seas have been an integral part of the Indic culture.  Even in the excavated finds from the ancient Saraswati civilization sites, the traditional continuity of the importance of Shankha spanning over several millennia is amazingly evident. 

Today, pearl fishing is not done here since last four decades.  However, the marine biology of the region continues to support a vast industry of fishing and Shankha gathering, and provide livelihood to hundreds of thousands of people, thanks to the waters of Sethusamudram and the unique paradise of nature that it nourishes.

Sethusamudram – The Nature’s Paradise

The thriving biodiversity richness in the region is counted amongst the best anywhere in the whole world.  Even the Environment Impact Assessment report, prepared by the project promoters, states: “The Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar in which the proposed ship canal is to be constructed are biologically rich and rated among the highly productive seas of the world.  Its diversity is considered globally significant.”

The remarkable and unique marine-geography of the region supports various entirely distinct ecosystems in vicinity to each other – Coral reefs, mudflats, beaches, islands, shallow waters, and mangroves.

The Gulf of Mannar alone shelters 3,268 recorded species of flora and fauna, including 377 species which are only found here in the whole world.  137 coral reef species form the basis of a unique and extensive reef framework for a very elaborate and functional ecosystem sheltering many species of plants and animals.

The Gulf of Mannar harbours the highest concentration of sea grass species anywhere in the Indian Ocean.  All the 11 known families of sea grasses occur here with Enhalus acoroides being exclusive only to this region.  Sea grass population is dominated by families like Hydrocharitaceae and Potamogetonaceae, and species like Halodule uninervis, Cymodocea rotunds, and C. Serulata.

The area also has all the known mangrove varieties in India, with Pemphis acidula being endemic to this region only.  Mangroves found here include the species like Rhizophora muctonata, Avicennia alba, Bruguiera gymnorrhiza, Ceriops tagal, and Lumnitzera racemosa etc.  

The area supports 147 species of sea-weeds, abundance of which make for healthy grazing grounds for sea cows and turtles.

Sethusamudram shelters the following important species of animals and fish, some of which are considered endangered by World Wildlife Fund as well as Wildlife Protection Act of 1972:

  • All the 5 varieties of Sea Turtles are found in this region – Chelonia mydas (Green turtle), Caretta caretta (Logger head turtle), Lepidochelys olivacea (Olive Ridley turtle), Eretmochelys imbricata (Hawksbill turtle), Dermochelys coriacea (Leather back turtle). These species are listed as threatened and protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
  • Sea cow (Dugong dugon) – On red list of endangered species.  The sea-grass beds of Sethusamudram are the largest remaining feeding grounds in the world for these globally endangered species.
  • 6 species of whales including Baleen Whale and Toothed Whale. 4 species of dolphins including Spinner dolphin and Bottle nose dolphin.  All are on the endangered list.
  • Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus)
  • Mollusca: A variety of most conspicuous, invertebrates such as bivalves, gastropods and cephalopods, Pearl oyster (Pinctada fucata), and Sacred Conch (Xancus pyrum).  Of the 24 groups of oyster species that generate valuable pearls, 14 occur between the shore and proposed channel, and 5 groups are precisely found along the location of the proposed channel.
  • Spiny lobster, Sea cucumber, a variety of Sea-horses and Sea-anemone, crabs, starfish, and sea urchins, Eels, stomatopoda, a huge diversity of decoration and colourful coral fishes.
  • A unique creature Balano-glosses (Ptychodera fava) – a living fossil linking invertebrates and vertebrates – is known to be found only here in the whole world.

This region is home to over 450 species of fish, 79 species of crustaceans, 108 species of sponges, 260 species of mollusks and 100 species of echinoderms.

The islands and the sandbanks in the region are a regular stopover for the migratory birds traveling between North Indian habitats and Sri Lanka.  Nearly 180 exquisite types of birds find habitat or seasonal resting grounds here.  Lesser sand piper, Curlew sandpiper, Little stint are found here in abundance.  Rare birds like Red knot, Eastern knot, Crab plovers, Bar tailed Godwit, Broad billed Sandpiper, Dunlin, long-toed Stint, redneck Phalarope are regular seasonal visitors.  Little tern, Kentish plover, Stone plover, Stone curlew, lesser crested sterna etc. fly large distances to specifically come here for breeding.  Thousands of Larger flamingos migrate here to spend winters before returning to Rann of Kuch in Gujarat.  The wetlands and marshes of the region support highly vulnerable species like spoonbill sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmaeus) and grey pelican (Pelecanus philippensis), both of which are on the red list of endangered species.

What contributes the most for such bio-richness of the region is the fact that Rama Setu separates two different marine systems – the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay – making them almost completely secluded and near isolated, akin to huge lagoons, existing side by side.  The region is unique in another sense that Rama Setu has also been blocking the shipping activity in the region, and therefore the local marine life has been near untouched so far from the pollutions like oil spills.

The fact that over 3,200 species of plants and animals are natural inhabitants of the region, including 377 species which are endemic here, makes it one of the biologically richest in the world.  Not without a reason are the waters of Sethusamudram called a Biologists Paradise. 

Also no wonder why no project in a long time has generated such heated protests from the environmentalists as the proposed Sethusamudram ship channel project.

Impact on Coral Reefs

In the entire Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay region, fringing and patch coral reefs are found, which support the basis of very elaborate functional ecosystems. Since reefs serve as the nursery grounds, by virtue to this function they also play a vital role in the fishing economy.  Healthier the reefs, better the reproduction of the fish, and therefore wellness of reefs directly contributes to the economy of the fishing communities. 

Coral Reefs and mangroves are the tropical rainforests of the seas.  Just like the tropical rainforests, coral reefs and mangroves support a huge scale of different ecosystems and biodiversity in the waters.  They provide shelter to a great range of algae & sponges, and nursery ground to fishes and other families of sea life.  Coral reefs also contribute by recycling the tremendous amount of scarce nutrients of the waters, besides reducing the CO2.

Coral is composed of fragile animals called coral polyps, each smaller than a pinhead. These animals form a thin layer on large coral reefs, which are the mounds of dead coral polyp skeletons, built up slowly layer upon layer.  Different reef species grow between 5-200 millimeters per year.  

While it might have taken thousands of years to form the sustained system of coral reefs in the Sethusamudram region, sadly it would hardly take any time to kill the live coral systems with an oil spill.  Maintenance dredging that will be needed every year to maintain the required depth along the channel’s sea bed, will also have a profound impact to the mortality of the reefs, however we shall restrict our discussion to the oil spill impacts.

There is a vast and diverse range of expert opinions on the exact nature of impact upon the Coral reefs from an oil spill.  There are many studies available that have analyzed the impacts.  One of the best (or rather worst) examples of such spills comes from the 1986 Bahia Las Minas crude oil spill in Panama.  Guzman et al. have studied this extensively, by comparing the health of coral species at six different reefs before the spill took place, with their health 3 months after the spill.  Study observes that at the oiled reefs, total coral cover decreased by 56 to 76 percent of original, species Acropora palmata nearly disappeared, and the size and diversity of the coral colony itself was significantly decreased.

The official Environment Impact Assessment report of the Sethusamudram project also concedes: “Oil pollution is an extreme example of how chemicals, in this case hydrocarbons, can affect reefs.  Research performed in many areas have documented coral mortality, decreased fecundity and recruitment failure in the response to chronic oil pollution.”

While the EAI mentions the above, EAI failed to discuss the specifics of the exact nature in which the corals of the region might suffer if oil spill were to take place in Sethusamudram.  The EAI has precisely one and fairly simplistic explanation to offer: that the chosen configuration is a few KMs away from the reefs. 

However, what EAI completely chooses to ignore is that even if the Sethusamudram passage itself might be removed from the reefs, the spill would have a very large probability of being carried by the monsoon currents towards the location of the reefs.  As a matter of fact, the EAI itself presents in the report elsewhere the data about the nature of ocean currents, which shows that the dominant water currents in this vicinity predominantly tend to be westerly during the Southwest and Northeast monsoons, which is where the corals are located. 

This clearly implies that an oil spillage would in all possibilities get carried to the coral areas under such conditions, and the long term potential impact on the reefs would be profound.

Impact on Sea Turtles

As we have discussed before, all five varieties of marine turtles, highly endangered and extremely rare species, are found in direct vicinity to the proposed channel.

Once again, like the case of corals, EAI of Sethusamudram is disappointedly silent about the impact of oil spills upon the sea turtles.  All it says is this: “Reported mass-killings of turtles in this region is primarily due to their getting entangled in gill nets and also due to poaching by local people for turtle flesh.  This observation indicates that the proposed canal project may not have any significant adverse impact on the migration and mass nesting of turtles.”  It does not even mention the potential oil spillage impact upon turtles.

Turtles are are probably the toughest marine species against any physical impact.  No wonder, in the Pauranik narrative of Samudra-Manthana (sea-churning), Lord Vishnu takes form of a large Sea Turtle to provide the physical foundation for the act of sea-churning. Turtles are surprisingly robust when faced with any physical damage, such as shark attacks or ship strikes etc.

However when it comes to the chemical insults such as oil exposure, sea turtles are known to be extremely sensitive.  They are vulnerable to the effects of oil at all life stages – eggs, post-hatchlings, juveniles, and adults.  Several aspects of sea turtle biology and behavior place them at particular risk, including a lack of oil avoidance behavior, indiscriminate feeding in the sea grass beds in vicinity to the proposed channel, and large pre-dive respiratory inhalation needs.  Oil effects on turtles have been observed worldwide to include fatal egg mortality and developmental defects, direct mortality due to oiling in hatchlings, juveniles, and adults; and hazardous impacts to the skin, blood, digestive and immune systems, and salt glands – often leading to slow death.

Frazier (1980) suggested that olfactory impairment from chemical contamination could represent a substantial indirect effect in sea turtles, since a keen sense of smell apparently plays an important role in navigation and orientation. He notes that masking olfactory cues may not harm a turtle outright, but impairing its ability to properly orient itself can result in a population impact as significant as direct toxicity, perhaps even greater.

Even if the sea turtles do not come in the direct contact with an oil spillage, as probably the Sethusamudram proponents might argue, however turtles are still at risk through eating contaminated food, and reduced food availability.  Marine turtles are mainly omnivorous and often consume sea grasses and algae.  As is the nature of oil spills, if oil sticks to and contaminates the sea grasses or algae, it would greatly impact the turtles.  A 1986 oil spill off Panama, for example, trapped oil in sediments of intertidal beds of turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum), eventually contaminating and killing the seagrass.  As a result, many invertebrates were reported killed over time and many others declined in numbers.

Impact on Sea Mammals

As mentioned before, 11 species of sea mammals are recorded in the region, including sirenia (1 species of sea cow dugong) and cetacea (6 species of whales and 4 species of dolphins). All of these are classified as highly endangered species under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.

Sea cow dugongs are a long living and less reproductive animals, and are severely endangered globally. They are fully herbivorous and feed on sea grass beds.  Sethusamudram region has some of the largest feeding grounds for these animals. Since oil spill would almost certainly contaminate the sea grasses, this would lead to the loss of their largest feeding grounds, besides potentially poisoning them through contaminated sea grass feeding.  

Besides this, the dugong’s head is heavy and blunt, with the mouth on the underside of the head designed for grazing.  They have smooth skins but coarse hairs around their mouths which serve as sensors as they search for edible sea grasses.  If surfacing near oil slicks with the head out to breathe, dugongs may foul these sensory hairs and also get oil in their eyes. This could cause inflammation and infections, and in long term could severely affect their ability to feed and breed.

There has been little research on the precise effects of oil on the dugong, but it is thought they could suffer “lipid pneumonia” if they inhale oil droplets and oil vapour when they surface through oil slicks to breathe. Dugongs may also suffer from long term chronic effects such as liver problems if they consume oil droplets or oil-affected sea grasses. Depending upon the amount and composition of the ingested oil, the effects could range from acute, to subtle, to progressive organ damage.  Aromatics and other low molecular weight hydrocarbons can be absorbed from the intestine and transported via the bloodstream to various target organs within the dugong.

Baleen whales are particularly vulnerable to oil while feeding. They plunge, take in huge quantities of water, and then filter out their feed of plankton and krill.  While doing so, oil may stick to the baleen while they “filter feed” near oil slicks.  Sticky, tar-like residues are particularly likely to foul the whales’ baleen plates.  Researchers have also indicated that inhalation of oil droplets, vapours and fumes is a possibility if whales surface near slicks to breathe.  Exposure to oil in this way could damage mucous membranes, damage airways or even cause death.

Impact on Birds

Face of the oil spills in public memory is often cast in the mould of the images of oil-coated, dead or dying birds, reported by the media.  This is because the oil spills invariably result in the death of a large number of sea birds, which are very sensitive to both internal and external effects of oil. 

Sea birds have a huge risk of contact to spilled oil because of the amount of time they spend on or near the surface of the sea and on oil affected foreshores.  Sea birds are affected by oil in several ways. Contact with oils causes feathers to collapse and matt and change the insulation properties of feathers and down. Matting of feathers severely hampers the ability of birds to fly.  Oiled feathers also make the seabirds lose buoyancy, and as a result they sink and drown.  Due to this, many also become easy prey to the predators.  A breakdown in the water-proofing and thermal insulation provided by the feathers also often causes hypothermia.  

Many species are susceptible to the toxic effects of inhaled oil vapors. Oil vapors can cause damage to the animal’s central nervous system, liver, and lungs.  They also get poisoned or intoxicated through the ingestion of oil via their prey since their food chain would become almost certainly contaminated.

Oil can be transferred from birds’ plumage to the eggs they are hatching. Scientists have also observed developmental effects in bird embryos that were exposed to oil. Long-term reproductive problems have been shown in some studies in animals that have been exposed to oil.

Impact on Fishing Communities

About 1.5 million people from across 6 coastal districts of Tamil Nadu depend upon fishing for their livelihood.  Out of this, about 115,000 fisher-folk from 23,000 families live in about 70 fishing villages in the direct neighborhood of the Sethusamudram project area.  There are 87 fish landing stations between the south of Point Calimere and Pamban in the Palk Bay, and 40 stations in the Gulf of Mannar between Pamban and Tuticorin.  The fish production has been reported to be gradually increasing year on year, and a production of about 2,05,700 tonnes was recorded in 2001.  There is also a sizeable population that depends upon Sacred Shankha related livelihood.  It must be noted that Shankha of these seas fetch many times more price than from any other place in the Indian Ocean.

How will this community dependent upon natural resources of the sea be affected in case of an oil spill disaster?

Oil spills would result in the most obvious tainting of fish, resulting in complete contamination of the food chain upon which the fisher-folk depend.  In most cases, loss of sales would also result because even if the fish are clean, they would be presumed to be tainted by the market, if spill happens anywhere in the region. 

Their access to the waters might be completely or partly restricted for weeks, when the containment efforts in response to spill would happen, leading to loss of income.  It is also very common for fishing to be banned for some time in the entire neighbouring region of a spill, so as to regain the market confidence.  Oil spills are known to also damage the fishing nets and gear too, with varying scale.

In longer economic cycle, the variation of income of the fishermen is largely tied to the reproduction of the fishes in the region.  Unfortunately oil spills have a very severe impact upon the reproduction of the fish.  Although fish are at risk in all life stages, but the eggs, larvae and young fish are very sensitive to oil.  There are at least 200 commercially important fish species reported in these waters, of varying breeding behaviour as well as habitats like the open sea, near-shores, coral reefs, estuaries or mangroves.  Since these habitats function as essential nursery breeding grounds for many fish species, their exposure to oil spills would result in lower productivity of fisheries, and therefore impact the income.

In all, an oil spill would be devastating to fisher-folk, an already impoverished and most marginalized community of Tamil Nadu, and even that is an understatement.

The goals of biodiversity conservation and livelihood security of the local people need to be placed at the centre of all decision making, pertaining to development or economic considerations of revenue generation.  In a country like India, where a large number of people are dependent on natural resources for their survival, social dimensions of livelihood and ecological security ought to be incorporated.

International Disputes

The configuration of Sethusamudram channel is in close proximity to the medial line between India and Sri Lanka, with the gap between the channel and the line being as low as 4 KMs.  In case of an Oil spill, it would be very possible for the spillage to cross over to the Sri Lankan waters, and expose Sethusamudram authority to international responsibility, liability, and litigations.

An oil spill of large proportions would also certainly evoke a major diplomatic response from the neighbouring nation, and pose the risks of negative impacts upon bilateral relations.

Response to contain the spill should invariably involve joint Indo-Sri Lankan coordination and monitoring, although the project reports do not propose any of such measures, shocking as it seems.  These overheads and concerns have been totally overlooked in the project specifications.


Oil spills might sound like some remote, rare and irrelevant events.  However as we have seen in the earlier part of this article, spills are a live, present and a highly probable reality in the proposed Sethusamudram Channel due to its very specific features. 

Oil spills have potential to be spectacularly devastating to the unique biodiversity paradise that thrives in the waters of Sethusamudram today.  Besides large spills, continuous low-level exposure to oil in the form of tarballs, slicks, or concentrations also challenges this marine life which is already facing other natural and anthropogenic stresses.  Spills place at risk the very livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of fisher-folk dependent upon these natural resources, besides risking international disputes.

Considering the present dangers, it is shocking to observe how casually and lightly have the oil spill impacts been taken by the Environment Impact Assessment study of the Sethusamudram project.

Concluding Part
Oil Spill Disasters and Sethusamudram – III: The Precautions and Response Readiness of the Authorities


  • Environmental Impact Assessment for Proposed Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project, August 2004.  Prepared by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute Nagpur for Tuticorin Port Trust. http://sethusamudram.gov.in/Study.asp
  • Studies on stress responses by corals exposed to oil and oil fractions, quoted from “Oil Spills in Coral Reefs: Planning and Response Considerations, 2001” http://tinyurl.com/22bv78

Tissue death:  Johannes et al. (1972); Reimer (1975); Neff and Anderson (1981); Wyers et al. (1986)
Impaired feeding: Reimer (1975); Lewis (1971); Wyers et al. (1986)
Impaired polyp retraction: Elgershuizen and de Kruijf (1976); Neff and Anderson (1981); Knap et al. (1983); Wyers et al. (1986)
Impaired sediment clearance ability: Bak and Elgershuizen (1976)
Increased mucus production: Peters et al. (1981); Wyers et al. (1986); Harrison et al. (1990)
Change in calcification rate: Birkeland et al. (1976); Neff and Anderson (1981); Dodge et al. (1984); Guzmán et al. (1991, 1994)
Gonad damage: Rinkevich and Loya (1979b); Peters et al. (1981)
Premature extrusion of planulae: Loya and Rinkevich (1979); Cohen et al. (1977)
Larval death: Rinkevich and Loya (1977)
Impaired larval settlement: Rinkevich and Loya (1977); Te (1991); Kushmaro et al. (1996); Epstein et al. (2000)
Expulsion of zooxanthellae: Birkeland et al. (1976); Neff and Anderson (1981); Peters et al. (1981)
Change in zooxanthellae primary production: Neff and Anderson (1981); Cook and Knap (1983); Rinkevich and Loya (1983)
Muscle atrophy: Peters et al. (1981)




One Response to “Oil spill disasters and Setusamudram — Sarvesh Kumar Tiwari”

  1. Setusamudram channel, an ecological disaster « Hindu traditions Says:

    […] Hindu traditions Just another WordPress.com weblog « Oil spill disasters and Setusamudram — Sarvesh Kumar Tiwari […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: