Sunday, January 6, 2008

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

Sarvesh Kumar Tiwari on India Forum

In the previous part of this article, we have seen that the 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 rising from those seas 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 fails 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 disappointingly 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 brief, an oil spill would set in a cycle of a local economic depression, and be devastating to the 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


1. Environmental Impact Assessment for Proposed Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project, August 2004. Prepared by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute Nagpur for Tuticorin Port Trust.
2. Studies on stress responses by corals exposed to oil and oil fractions, quoted from “Oil Spills in Coral Reefs: Planning and Response Considerations, 2001”
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)
3. Sarah Milton, Peter Lutz, and Gary Shigenaka (2003), “Oil Toxicity and Impacts on Sea Turtles”
4. Government of Australia’s Marine Environment Protection National Plan
5. Subramanian TS, (2005) “SETHUSAMUDRAM CANAL PROJECT: Ecologists' anguish”
6. Santhanam, Ramasamy (2007),Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Tamilnadu (India) Fishermen
7. Reefs: Living Fireworks
8. Natural Resources of Gulf of Mannar Area:
9. The Effects of Maritime Oil Spills on Wildlife including Non-Avian Marine Life.
10. Etkin D.S (1997) The Impact of Oil Spills on Marine Mammals, OSIR Report 13 March 1997 Special Report.
11. Geraci J.R and St.Aubins D.J. (1990) Sea Mammals and Oil. Confronting the Risks, Academic Press. ISBN-0-12-280600-X
12. The Behavior and Effects Of Oil Spills In Aquatic Environments, EPA Office of Emergency and Remedial Response USA
13. Swaminathan, MS and committee (2005), A Review Report on Costal Regulation Zone Notification of 1991

Author can be reached at sarveshtiwari at hotmail dot com

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