Wednesday, December 5, 2007

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

Sarvesh Kumar Tiwari

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:
a) Probability of an Oil Spill disaster in case of Sethusamudram Channel
b) Potential impact on local ecology, if such an event were to occur in Sethusamudram
c) 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. 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 collusions – 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?

Next part:
Oil Spill Disasters and Sethusamudram – II: What is at Stake?


1. Indian Express, November 12, 2007 Putin Welcomes Manmohan Singh
2. MSNBC, Oil from Russian spill kills 30,000 birds
3. Lloyd’s Register
4. 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.
5. Mariner Group, A History of Oil Spills
6. Greenpeace International, 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.
7. Akten, Necmettin (2006) “Shipping accidents: a serious threat for marine environment”, Black Sea Mediterranean Environment Vol 12:269-304(2006)
8. PMO's questions on Sethusamudram
9. Papri Sri Raman, "Cyclones, Tsunami and the Sethusamudram Project"
10. Abdul Kalam, Dr. APJ, Wings of Fire
11. Balakrishnan, H. Capt (Retd), in THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 25-May-2007
12. Lu, Meche and Chernaik, Mark (2004),"Evaluation of the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Proposed Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project"
13. Sumich, James L. and Morrissey, John F. "Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life"
14. Indian Express 1999,
15. Hariharan R. Col.(Retd.) (2006), "STRATEGIC SECURITY AND SETHUSAMUDRAM PROJECT", South Asia Analysis Group, Paper 1713.
16. 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

Author can be reached at sarveshtiwari at hotmail dot com

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