By Dr Nandkumar M Kamat
When there is a problem, there also comes an opportunity. The government is soon going to waste massive public funds - almost Rs 100 crore - in removal of the drifted vessel M/V River Princess. The amount is several times the total budget of the tourism department and at least hundred times the income of the Candolim panchayat. For a smaller amount Candolim could have got Goa’s best underground sewerage system.
The grounded merchant shipping vessel, River Princess presents an opportunity for the fisheries and tourism departments of the Government of Goa, scuba divers and Indian Navy. It is a win-win situation. Since 1970 at least 30 ships have been sunk to create wreck diving sites. USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have the expertise in this matter. The continental shelf near Goa is like a smooth plateau. The grounded River Princess is at sea level. These are very shallow waters. The real sea begins only one km away from the ship. If we draw an east-west straight line from the site of the River Princess then it is only at a distance of 20 to 30 kms that we see the depth of the sea slowly increasing. That’s where River Princess should be entombed, on a smooth, gentle continental shelf - at a depth of 60-100 metres at least. It would turn into a paradise for divers and for underwater ecotourism.
Many years ago a ship had sunk in the middle of the Siridao bay. It has created an artificial reef where fish are found in plentiful according to fishermen of Nauxe, Cancra and Odxel. USS Spiegel Grove - an 11000 MT ship - was deliberately sunk in Florida to create an artificial reef for divers. Fishermen and NGOs in Kerala have shown the way to creating artificial reefs - where fishes are attracted - by sinking all types of objects. These small reefs near Thumba are artificial underwater habitats for fish. It would cost much less to drag the ‘River Princess’, emptied of all potential hazardous materials, and sink it at a depth of 60 to 100 metres, at a distance of 15 to 25 kms from the Candolim coast.
That would create a new artificial underwater ecosystem. Instead of the proposal to dump the pieces cut from the ship on land, it is better to dump these in a computer aided pre designed underwater formation to create a novel habitat for marine life. That’s the solution.
The only problem is getting rid of all toxic elements like PVC, oil, grease, etc. This is not difficult. Compared to the meagre scrap value of these pieces - the ecosystem value would be several fold and sustainable over the years. Actually this condition should have been factored in by the government before framing the objectives for the contractor. Even now it is not very late. As per the present proposal, dragging large pieces of the ship on to beach and then piling these on the ground after transportation on narrow village roads would be a public and environmental nuisance. Therefore lifting and towing these pieces with heavy ship lifts, systematically, one-by-one, to a predetermined, well researched, benign spot on the continental shelf for submergence would be the most practical and beneficial idea. Computers and satellites with GPS today help in doing such tasks and the governments of the above mentioned countries would always give a helping hand.
I have put forward this proposal to the Governor at a recent meeting of the Goa State Environmental Protection Council where the issue of the ‘River Princess’ came up.
Why does the ‘River Princess’ need to be removed from the Candolim waters?
The first reason is that it is an artefact; it does not belong to the beachscape and seascape and therefore needs to be removed. The second reason is that it is an eyesore that is aesthetically polluting. It looks odd - like a linear mega version of Dr Subodh Kerkar’s beach installations. Third reason is that it is allegedly causing beach erosion. However, satellite images show expansion of the beach between 2003 and 2010. In April 2010 satellite images show a mini triangular shoal formation. It corresponds with the angle of the ship to the beach. The fourth reason is that the River Princess, if not towed away, may break and all the junk could pollute the beach. This is possible, but it would be a slow process if the ship gets stabilised with heavy sand deposition.
After its removal, if the erosion of the Candolim Beach continues then what would happen? How would that be explained? Wasn’t the ship acting like a buffer - a giant linear metallic tetrapod? The bitter truth is that the Baga-Candolim-Sinquerim beach stretch is not being nourished anymore from natural, normal sediment transport from the Baga and Nerul rivers. Both these rivers show clogging of the channel and interference in their smooth flow. Slightly higher tidal amplitude at Baga some days back submerged a large part of the beach because the natural drainage has been compromised. By pointing fingers only towards the River Princess as the cause of beach erosion the hydrology of Baga and Nerul rivers would not be automatically restored.
There is another problem with the removal exercise of the large ship - the unpredictable weather conditions. It would be difficult to get normal weather for 150-180 days to tow or cut and tow away the ship. Heavy ship lifts, pumping the ballast tanks for re floatation may work depending on the weather conditions. Even if work orders are issued this month, the contractors are likely to excuse themselves later on account of sudden development of extreme weather phenomena. The optimal period is between January and mid-April. None of the government departments have any experience for such kind of operations. The contractors may drop the operations if they sense public resistance to transport and storage of the pieces of the ship on land. Since these operations may take place during the peak tourist months there would be problems of logistics, and law and order.
So why not cut the costs, save time, save ecological and social impact on land and just dump the River Princess whole or in parts on the continental shelf of Goa in acceptably deep waters? Expertise of the abovementioned countries as well as ONGC engineers may help.