Moving in the New Direction : The Gulf of Mannar
Dr. Ranil Senanayake
The Gulf of Mannar, shared by India and Sri Lanka is unique, connected to the ocean on both sides but cut off from the full effect of the Indian Ocean by being traversed by a geological structure. So shallow, it was impossible to traverse the underwater chain in anything with a greater draft than a canoe Carswell & Prickett (1984), and the situation of Mantai on the east side of this natural barrier is significant. The narrow channel between the island of Mannar and mainland, like Pamban channel between the island of Rameswaran and the Indian mainland, may have allowed the passage of slightly large boats, but certainly nothing like the ocean-going vessels engaged in long-distance international trade. It is therefore evident that Mantai represented a terminus for westbound traffic. From this point, goods would either have been carried overland to the west, or trans-shipped through the Mannar channel in smaller boats to large boats waiting out at sea. The differential between the water levels on either side of Adam’s bridge is such that every 12hr, as a result of the tides, there is a powerful flow of water through the channel. This means that little boats would be carried through the channel in either direction simply by the tidal flow (Goonatilake 2002). A modern transport system that used tidal flow is just one consideration for the effective use of the regions resources.
We are just beginning to understand the scientific and conservation value of the body of water termed the Gulf of Mannar. The Gulf of Mannar is a body of shallow water that lies between the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal; it functions as gulf due to an extraordinary geological formation called Ram Sethu or Adams Bridge. This rocky ridge was once a range of low hills, once a chain of interlinked islands, and now a breakwater, but it always acted to isolate the Gulf of Mannar from the oceanic forces of the southern seas. This geological formation has connections to many human myths and proto-histories. It is here that Hanuman, moving with haste his armies to aid Rama, created bridges to aid their movement along the island chain. It is here, along a stony bridge that
Adam, who was once placed on the holy peak, walked out of paradise. It helps explain much of the isolation forces that led to the patterns of speciation that we seen between South India and Sri Lanka. By acting as a range of hills it directed the northward movement of now drowned ‘Dereniyagala Oya’river, by acting as a breakwater it created tranquil ocean conditions in the Gulf, leading the evolution of highly diverse marine ecosystems such as Marine Grass Beds, Coral Reefs, Oyster Ledges. It is the home of the Dugong, accredited by some to be the origin of the ‘Mermaid’ myth, The placid waters provide a safe calving ground to the smaller cetaceans. It is a ‘spiritual site’ to millions of people. It stands in danger.
Of recent this bridge has become barrier to a mega-project, one that saw the need to dredge a shipping channel through the Gulf of Mannar that would have cut a break in the ‘bridge’ and destroyed the ecosystems of the Gulf. Fortunately, the supreme court of India recognised the potential conflict in allowing the project to go ahead in this form and it was restrained by a stay order. For the moment, the law protects the well being of the GOM, but only temporarily. Alternate alignments are being sought, when the whole premise of the project needs joint re-examination.
This delay has given us time to re-examine the project, its premises and the validity of its impact reports. The initial findings are disturbing, it states that ‘the project has been hasty, ill conceived and without any discussion with a neighbouring county, Sri Lanka, who share the waters.’(IUCN). The Sri Lankan situation, already strained, with the burden of war and regional politics will only worsen by unilateral action that can have severe transboundary effects. The gaps in the Environmental Impact Report submitted in support of this project shows the project as fatally flawed. The EIA for the Sethusamudram Canal Project was conducted by NEERI on behalf of the Government of India and the Evaluation of the Environmental Impact Study was made by the Tuticorin Port Trust. This work has been found to contain enormous gaps by a study conducted by the IUCN (Anon 2005). Some of the key gaps identified by the IUCN study are:
• The Terms of Reference for the EIA is absent
• The EIA is largely unsatisfactory in depth and analysis.
• There is absolutely no consideration of impacts on Sri Lanka.
• There are a number of highly critical gaps in the analysis of potential impacts on livelihoods and ecosystems.
• Stakeholder consultation is inadequate, while Sri Lankan stakeholders have not been consulted at all.
• There is insufficient consideration of the project’s impacts on local livelihoods both within the Indian and Sri Lankan territories.
• Consideration of environmental costs have not been thoroughly examined and accounted for.
• Due to the large number of gaps in the EIA, the proposed mitigation measures are largely inadequate as there is no sufficient consideration of a number of potential impacts.
• Several proposed mitigation measures in the environmental management plan seem unrealistic and implementation of these may be problematic.
• In many cases, although it is stated that environmentally safe methods will be used, mitigation measures and operational guidelines are not described in detail and do not highlight exactly how negative environmental impacts will be avoided.
The IUCN study, made the following recommendations:
• Conduct a full EIA on the proposed project’s impact on the coastal areas and territorial waters of Sri Lanka with full consultation with Sri Lankan stakeholders.
• Conduct a scientific assessment of marine and coastal biodiversity in the North and Northwestern marine and coastal area of Sri Lanka.
• Recalculate the economic feasibility of the project, and the project budget, after incorporating the findings of the EIA. At minimum calculations should include physical costs of environmental mitigation and management plan, ideally to include environmental economic costs and benefits.
• Proposed mitigation measures in the environmental management plan should be reviewed in light of standard shipping practices, capacity to implement measures and the projected cost of measures.
But first, the antecedents of the issue should examine. The land, which we today refer to as the ‘Gulf of Mannar’, was in fact a well-watered valley not very long ago. The land had the range of hills to the south that separated it from the Indian Ocean. Then a sea level rise was experienced which flooded the valley from both the north and the south until all that was left of the hills was a chain of small islands. This phenomena of emergence and flood, has gone on since the Miocene (Cooray 1967). Thus what we call the ‘bridge’, the rocky formation that has become such a bone of contention today, currently serving to arrest the through flow of the oceanic currents across a sheltered gulf; once was a valley with wooded hills, close knit series of island chains connecting India with Sri Lanka and was (is) an undersea ocean barrier, that protects the gulf. The fluctuation of the landscape between from lush, to dry to drowned was very pronounced during the Pleistocene (Deraniyagala 1958 ). The Pleistocene climate has been hypothesized by Deraniyagala (op cit) to consist three distinct phases termed the Ratnapura Phase, Palagaha Turai phase and the Colombo phase (early Holocene).
The Ratnapura phase was characterized by wet, cool climatic conditions. The fossil beds from this stage contain lake dwelling animals like the Hippopotamus Hexoprotodon and aquatic vegetation suggesting large lakes and swamps. The Palugaha Turai phase is represented by highly oxidized red earth and wind blown sands that suggest a dry, arid period, overlying the beds of the Ratnapura phase. The Colombo phase is essentially the early Holocene, which became wetter and stabilized itself in the climatic conditions experienced today
Regardless of the number of connections with the mainland, immigration of species adapted to cool and moist conditions would have been possible only in the early part of the Pleistocene as later connections will have coincided with the Palagaha Turai and Colombo phase This trend is also suggested in the work of De Terra and Patterson (1939) who noted that the climate of central India had changed from wet-tropical to dry-tropical by mid-Pleistocene times.
Although the Pleistocene has been identified as the period of radiation and speciation of Sri Lankan biota (Moore), Holocene events have also played central part in creating the present history. The global phenomenon termed the Holocene transgression saw sea levels at 35,000 years before present (ybp) approximately the same level as today. But between these times the sea level fell by about130m and rose again to present levels. (Emory and Milliman 1968). The form of the Holocene transgression has been computed using a range of indicators from around the world. Although the possibility of lag exists in sheltered or otherwise modified areas as shown by some temporal anomalies, the amplitude has been constant. The Holocene transgression trends for the Indian Ocean is assumed to be similar to the trends measured for the Great Barrier Reef and South China Sea (Emory and Milliman op cit, Davies and Kinsey 1977, Hopley and Kinsey 1988) .
When the Holocene transgression began at about 35,000-34,000 ybp the Island had very much the same outline as present. From this time on, the sea began to recede until about 28,000 ybp when a large landmass was formed to the north extending the Jaffna peninsula in size and extending Mannar island into a peninsula that connected Sri Lanka with the mainland. Two other significant geographical features were expressed at this time, a new riverine floodplain south of the Mannar peninsula and the complex of islands that emerged in the south (Senanayake 1994)
The riverine floodplain to the south was created by two large rivers the old courses of which have been described by Deraniyagala (1958). While it is probable that these two rivers joined at around the mid Holocene, they have remained distinct during the early and late portions of the Holocene. One river was an extension of the Aravi Aru of today; the other drained the watersheds of the Kal Aru, Modaragam Oya, Kala Oya and Mi Oya. This large river named the ‘Deraniyagala Oya’ created a series of riverine flats that existed for about 22,000 years. (Senanayake 1994 ).
Humans had been hunter-gatherers in this region over 50,000 years ago (Deraniyagala 1990). It is known that the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture also began at this time, but to practise agriculture one has to lead a sedentary lifestyle, difficult in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Unless, one was surrounded by an overabundance of food. The retreating seas of the Holocene transgression created salt marshes, with a superabundance of human food, an opportunity to lead a settled lifestyle. For about 20,000 years the ocean retreated creating between Sri Lanka and India, new land, a’ Virgin Continent’, which is a literal translation of’ Kumari Kandam’ (Mahalingam 1981) A very apt name for the huge landmass that appeared literally out of the ocean. This new land, recently won from the sea would have been highly productive, and as settled culture arose, somewhere on this new land, the first sangam was established by the arising civilization.
These lands existed for about 4000 years and were resubmerged with a rise in sea level that began at about 17,000 ybp and culminated at the ten meter level about 6000-7000 years ago . The rise in sea leaves at the late Holocene seems to have happened rapidly as the present coastline is known to have stabilized at about 6000ybp ( Hopley 1983). The recent and rapid drowning of theses lands in relatively recent (5500-6000ybp) times is also suggested by the presence of ‘drowned forests’ along the old river plain of the Deraniyagala Oya. The river course still exists and is visible today. The stumps of drowned forests have been recoded in this area as far back as 1950 and confirmed by divers examining the sites in the 1980’s.
The geological and fossil evidence confirms the fact that the Gulf of Mannar was once a fertile river valley. This validates many Tamil scholars who have interpreted the existence of such a land in the classical Tamil literature. It provides credibility to the myth and legend that spoke of drowned sangams, but was dismissed for the lack of proof. The National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) of India has discovered and provided ample evidence of drowned cities off Poompuhur in the South East coast of Tamil Nadu, right within the area where Kumari Kandam has been hypothesized. The discoveries of other drowned constructions off Mahabalipuram adds weight to the idea that the region now underwater had been once habituated by a large population. The fishermen of the area are familiar with sunken ruins, that they claim is where fish gather. The evidence that there are drowned cities and temples in what is presently the sea is overwhelming (Hancock 2002) . The Gulf of Mannar is not only a treasure in terms of its biodiversity, but also as a place of huge archaeological interest. It may hold keys to early human cultural development.
It is the relative calm of the marine environment that affords the conservation of both ecosystems and artefacts The Gulf of Mannar, due to its sheltered nature its shallow waters have become a regions of the great diversity. The dry climate of the two landmasses on each side has meant that there are no major rivers and thus no major silt load being deposited into its waters. The relative absence of heavy, polluting industries along either coastline makes it optimal for sustainable development. It also means that most of the relatively undisturbed ecosystems of today, can be maintained in this state through design. The region is very fragile, even the current load of fertilizers washing in from the land on both sides is enough to trigger dinoflagellate blooms in quantities vast enough to suck all the oxygen out of the water, suffocating fish and other creatures of the marine ecosystem. In terms of resource destruction around 250metres3 of coral is quarried from the Gulf of Mannar per day with the subsequent release of the carbon component as CO2. In a world stumbling towards sustainable development, could we not consider such a zone as having the right climate to promote a different model ? A prefect background to such an eventuality is the recognition of the unique scientific and cultural value of this zone and propose the Gulf of Mannar as a World Heritage Site. Such recognition will also boost tourist and real estate development as it will be based on the provision of good ecosystem services. Currently high-end tourism has moved up to the tip if Kalpitiya peninsula in Sri Lanka. The next land point is Mannar and the bridge protecting a very tourist friendly sea. The Gulf of Mannar as a World Heritage Site will go a long way in developing much needed tourism ventures on both sides of the Gulf.
In terms of the Ramayana much as been and will be said. The Ram Sethu, or Rama’s Bridge constructed for his armies to cross into Lanka, considering the closeness of the islands at the time of the setting of the Ramayana, bridges might have been modest. The placement of his protagonist Ravana who is said to have had his citadel in Lanka would seem to be on the other side of Ram Sethu. The Rajavali complied about the fourth century AD. It speaks of an antiquarian time when ‘The citadel of Ravana, 25 palaces and 400,000 streets were swallowed up by the sea’ (Upham 2007). The submerged land was suggested to lie between Tuticorin in India and the island of Mannar in Sri Lanka. It has been suggested by many researchers that Mannar Island is a remnant of that ancient landmass. The exciting finds by the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) of India of apparently man made structures at a depth of 23 meters in the northern part of the Gulf of Mannar; suggest the great need for marine archaeology before destructive activity is unleashed on the site.
It is our challenge to examine the plethora of values, of concerns, environmental and spiritual, that surround this area and to invite commentary or views that will lead to the submission of a proposal to recognise the Gulf of Mannar as a World Heritage Site. But the journey to examine this piece of the planet has produced a vision of the other unique characters of this zone. If developed in the manner that the world is calling for, the value and prestige gained by both nations in terms of an alternative economic engine to the current approach, it could become a world model.
The Rio Earth Summit made it clear: Development must meet the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own. The landmark commission headed by Ms. Gro Harlem Bruntland ex-premier of Norway was responsible for the establishment of The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) in December, 1992 and ”Sustainable Development” was recognized as a goal of multilateral and bilateral funding. The concept of sustainable development has become a universally accepted foundation for countries around the world when they contend with environmental problems today. It was put forward by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, and was presented through its report in 1987, Our Common Future.
The CSD is supported by a multitude of international agreements, of these, some of the notable are:
• The Convention on Biological Diversity,
• The Desertification Convention,
• The Montreal Protocol and
• The Kyoto Protocol et al.
These global agreements not only oblige countries to legislate to meet their stated goals; they also have financial instruments through which this process can be facilitated. An example is the Global Environment Facility (GEF) of 3.2 billion dollars. Some times such instruments may drive markets such as the case of Ozone depleting gases such as CFCs, others may be market driven as the case of Carbon trading under the Kyoto Protocol. Indications of a market responding to the needs of sustainable development are seen in the growth of eco tourism, organic food and green and ethical investment.
Based on the CSD, a number of multilateral instruments both legal and financial could be developed around the world. Agriculture, trade and industry that meet with the CSD guidelines should have an increasing opportunity to benefit from the international trading system. Today, it is clear that the warning calls of climate change and financial dislocation have been heeded. The offers of new taxes, incentives and markets are increasing around the world for green and ethical investment. After years of being ignored as not having much value to prevailing economic dogma, Sustainable Development is now gaining the credence it deserves. A new vision on what is possible is emerging. A shipping channel through this region, an idea that is already over a century old, does not take any of this into consideration, it is an idea whose times has passed. We should not sacrifice the future on ghosts of the past. The resources that will be affected negatively are many, the opportunity cost high, an example of critically important issues, that have been ignored is the thorium and other nuclear materials that have been concentrated by the formation of the Gulf of Mannar and could give the region centuries of cheap, safe power. Disrupting the flow patterns could destroy these invaluable resources by scattering them to deeper waters.
Sri Lanka and India have developed a framework for regional investment incentives termed Free Trade Zones (FTZ). These could provide models for Sustainable Development Zones (SDZ) where the concepts of Sustainable Development guide production and market growth. The Government of Sri Lanka has appointed an Inter-Ministerial Committee, to study the establishment of SDZ’s. The Koslanda SDZ is an example (Sandarasagara 2006, pers com). Thus the concept of a SDZ is not new to Sri Lanka.
An SDZ established in the Gulf of Mannar will create a new focus of economic activity in the area, in keeping with all international conventions and having the capacity to attract targeted funding for Sustainable Development. It will also provide an ideal opportunity for the development of an information trading community within the zone.
In terns of conservation, India has already set the pace for the region by the establishment of the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve by the Government of India and the State of Tamil Nadu in 1989 this was the first marine protected area to be declared in South and South East Asia. Thus an extension to recognize the area as a world heritage Site will be in keeping with this policy.
If situated within a world heritage site, the SDZ can capitalize on the natural assets of this unique geographical location and can provide a focus for a varied range of international investments in both nations, The Boards of Investment (BOI) could assist in attracting a greater share of Green Investment, Ethical Investment, Eco Tourism, High End Tourism, Yacht servicing, Whale Watching, IT industrial zone, Marine Based Attractions, Nature Based Attractions amongst many other possibilities. The Pearl Oyster Fishery and the historical trading stories of this region could indeed fuel a new marketing image, a new development paradigm and place this region well on the path to sustainable development.
With a new chance for peace, we have an opportunity to align with the international community’s imperative and seek the economic advantages of such a development. An SDZ can offer a natural attraction for the establishment of UN agencies within the zone, as it will conform to the model being promoted by the UN system. The poor farmer and fisher families who have inhabited these coasts for millennia, should not become the latest victims of the rapacious history of the last millennium, rather they should be the recipients of the ideals and values of the new.
Thus it is proposed that we begin to consider the possibilities of a new role for this region, neglected for decades, riven by war, it cries out for change. Now the opportunity arises. Will the Gulf of Mannar represent a new vision of development? A new change? Can it embody the goals of Sustainable Development and of peace and thereby diminish the painful memories of war by creating a “Zone of Peace” as a model for a war weary world? Can we create a Zone of Peace, where living up to the ideals of the emerging 21st century will be rewarded ? Paraphrasing the new president elect of the Unites States on the need to change, and understanding that there is a dawning of a global awareness, I believe that we can now say, “Yes! We can!”
This meeting is yet another firm step into such a future.
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