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Asia Dive News : India to build new "Suez" desipte ecological storm

DHANUSHKODI, India (Reuters) - For India, it is an almost 150-year dream about to come true - its "Suez" carving a new channel between the south coast and Sri Lanka, dramatically shortening the sea route for freight and slashing costs.

But for environmentalists and fishermen, it is a nightmare in the making, one that it will haunt South Asia for decades.

The $560 million Sethusamudram Ship Channel has roused strong emotions among supporters and opponents alike. And the tussle is likely to worsen as digging begins on Saturday.

One of India's showcase projects to upgrade its infrastructure to cope with rapid economic growth, the channel, 12 metres deep, 300 metres wide and almost 90 km (55 miles) long, will cut through a chain of small islands known as Adam's Bridge that links the tips of India and Sri Lanka.

Once finished, freighters sailing from one side of India to the other will no longer have to detour south around the bottom of Sri Lanka, saving up to 400 nautical miles (730 km) and 36 hours.

"This will be a boon for the shipping industry. It will boost our ports and increase economic activity along the channel," said a spokesman for the Shipping Ministry, which is overseeing the project.


"It will also benefit our navy as vessels can move faster and also patrol the seas between India and Sri Lanka."

Sethusamudram -- literally the sea with the bridge -- was first conceived in 1860, about the same time digging started for the Suez Canal in Egypt, by a British naval officer.

But red tape and political tangles tied it up until May, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition government finally cleared it, under pressure from a southern ally who wants to highlight the project in the Tamil Nadu state poll next year.

The canal will only be able to handle small and medium-size ships with a draft of up to 10 metres and up to 50,000 DWT (dead weight tonnage). Such vessels could carry containers, grain and other commodities, but would exclude the likes of crude tankers and aircraft carriers.

Nevertheless, shippers are excited.

One project estimate puts the number of transits in 2008, the first year of operation, at 3,055 under a moderate traffic scenario, more than doubling to 7,141 in 2025.

"Sethusamudram will enhance coastal traffic. It will help feeder container vessels, small product and bulk carriers and multi purpose vessels," Yudhisthir D. Khatau, vice-president of the National Shipowners' Association, told Reuters.

A brilliant idea, say environmentalists, but only if the waters around Adam's Bridge, including a marine park, were not home to one of the world's richest biosphere reserves, with 3,600 types of marine life, including about 400 endangered species.

Digging will involve scooping the seabed and dumping the sediment in deeper water further out to sea.

This and the freight traffic would wipe out marine life and threaten the livelihood of thousands of small fishermen in India and Sri Lanka, reducing catches and restricting their movement, activists in both countries say.

"The worst thing marine life hates is mud and oil. They will simply die or disappear," said Ossie Fernandes of the Coastal Action Network, an umbrella body of environmental groups, fishing organisations, scientists and activists. "So, if you look at the entire biosphere, the project is the death knell."

Sri Lanka has also voiced its worries, but its opposition has been muted in the face of India's power and influence. India brushes aside opposition, saying the canal has been cleared by an official environmental body.

The ministry says the route is more than 20 km (13 miles) from the marine park. Digging will be monitored to make sure marine life is not disturbed, ships must meet tough pollution controls and money has been put aside to help the fishermen.

But critics still plan street protests and rail blockades.

"I am an illiterate fisherman, but even I know that when they dig the seabed and deposit it elsewhere, fish in both places will perish," said Nagaraj, of Dhanushkodi hamlet, the nearest human habitation to Adam's Bridge.

"But we are poor folk and don't have a voice. How can we take on the almighty federal government?"