Sunday, September 30, 2007

A bridge and its heritage

Talking just about environmental protection or culture, and not economic realities, will not launch local communities into development. Environmentalists are often accused of being “immoral”—hearing only the desperate cries of heritage activists and ecosystems and not recognizing people’s daily struggles against poverty. But then things get a little quirky if NASA takes a few satellite pictures and publish it.

Opinion is highly divided over the Sethusamudram (Ram-Setu) issue, a chain of limestone shoals between Mannar in northwestern Sri Lanka and Rameswaram off the southeastern coast of India. The Hindus believe it’s part of their mythical folklore that goes the bridge was built for Lord Rama to cross over and rescue his wife abducted by Ravana, a Lankan demon king, as recounted in the epic Ramayana.

The 48-km-long feature connects the Gulf of Mannar to Palk Strait. The Encyclopedia Britannica says it was once the world's largest tombolo – a sandbar connecting an island to another island or the mainland – but it was destroyed several thousand years ago by a slight rise in sea level. Today, all that remains is a chain of sandbanks that severely hinders navigation.

Right now, ships trying to move between India's west and east coasts have to go around Sri Lanka. To save time, India decided to build a shipping canal between the countries. The decision to build the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal itself is fraught with controversy – with several geologists and environmentalists from India and Sri Lanka raising objections on scientific grounds.

So, what stand to take? Let’s first decide how the emissions from the longer round-about trip and their contribution to global warming compares to the damage from the construction project. A canal MAY save some fuel and time for the ships to get across. But building it in itself would burn up a million gallons of fossil fuel - for the dredgers, pavers, concrete pourers, not to mention the steel required, plus the shipping involved to get the raw materials there! Even after the canal gets built, imagine ships lining up to pass through it with engines humming, burning more oil in the process. Also I wonder what the environmental cost savings would be with fewer miles traveled. They aren't talking about solar or wind powered ships.

Precisely why I am tempted to lean towards heritage, as it saves a beautiful bit of nature. Let the ships go round.


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