Midweek Review

Future of Sri Lanka lies in the sea

by A. Denis N. Fernando
Fellow National Academy of Sciences
The United Nations Law of the Sea Conference (UNCLOS) presided by late Shirley Amarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN, brought a new dimension to the exploitation and the utilization of the natural resources in the oceans.

Prior to 1994 the jurisdiction of Sri Lanka was confined to the land area of about 65,500 sq.km and the Internal Waters, Historic Waters, Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone comprising a sea area of nearly 51,300 sq.km.

With the ratification and acceptance by the required number of countries of the UNCLOS on 16th November 1994, a large area of ocean has come under the jurisdiction of Sri Lanka, namely up to 200 nautical miles (370.4 km) from the low water mark and limited by the median line between the adjacent countries of India and the Maldives. This area is called the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which is completely under the jurisdiction of Sri Lanka and comprises an area of about 437,000 sq.km which is approximately 7.5 times the land area of Sri Lanka.

A Sri Lankan proposal was taken up by the Sri Lankan delegation headed by Dr. Hiran Jayawardena and Ambassadors Mr. Christopher Pinto, Mr. Karen Breckenridge and Mr. Susantha de Alwis for an exceptional method of determining the continental shelf applicable to the unique conditions of the Bay of Bengal and had been subject of intensive consultations during the Conference. The 141 plenary sessions of the Conference accepted this proposal and the statement of understanding was appended to the final act of the UNCLOS.

It is at least 800 km from the low water mark and the approximate boundary of the deep sea Bengal Fan would comprise an area of at least 30 times the land area of Sri Lanka. As this area is beyond the Lanka Samudra, we have designated it as Pralanka Samudra. This name has been suggested as Sri Lanka was called "Pra Samudra" in the Arthasastra of Kautilya to indicate the location of Sri Lanka which was "in the area beyond the sea". This is in keeping with the description of continental shelf which is beyond the Lanka Samudra, and is therefore used as such here by the thickness of the sediment and the claim for it is time bound. Any claim for it would have to be made to the UNCLOS before 14th November, 2004 AD now extended to 2009 as otherwise the claim would be lost forever. Time is running out and hence this task has to be expedited immediately and given the highest priority. You, no doubt will agree with me that a task of this magnitude can only be undertaken by mobilising the UNDP and other Technical Assistance Agencies, and employ technically qualified and competent staff with experience to determine this boundary and make the claim before the deadline stipulated. This is without doubt the greatest challenge for our Professional Scientists and Technologists in Sri Lanka.

Once the task of delineating the boundary of the continental shelf has been determined, then the exploration would have to be geared to mapping and determining the natural resources within the areas under our jurisdiction. It would be only after we have a better idea of our natural resources that we would be able to mobilise the Department and Agencies to exploit them.

Finally the task ahead of us would be to plan on the short term, medium term and long term. Firstly it will be necessary to delineate the Pralanka Samudra, and thereafter to explore and exploit the resources within our jurisdiction. It is clearly seen that the future of Sri Lanka is in the sea.

The Scientists and Technologists have a key role to play in the development of Sri Lanka, not only now, but in this millennium. This is an unprecedented challenge.

Thus further to this, a further area could be claimed under Article 76 of UNCLOS. This would involve a mechanism of defining extensions to offshore areas beyond the 200 nautical mile limit, and would be applicable to coastal nations with a narrow continental shelf margin. This would entail the exercise of sovereign rights over mineral and certain biological resources of the sea-bed and the subsoil and also would have a measure of jurisdiction in matters related to environment and conservation, and is called the Extended Exclusive Economic Zone (the Continental Shelf).

In terms of this statement, the States in the southern part of the Bay of Bengal (Sri Lanka and India) have claims to seabed rights for a considerable area of the Indian Ocean in the Bengal Fan and is indicated in the Map 1. This sea space comprises of an area of over 1,500,000 sq.km or about 18 times the land area of Sri Lanka. However these claims have to be made by Sri Lanka before 14th November 2004, now extended to 2009.


For purposes of distinguishing the land area from, the sea area within the jurisdiction of Sri Lanka of both the EEZ and the Exd. EEZ, it is suggested to DESIGNATE these new areas as:

(a) The EEZ falling within our exclusive jurisdiction as "Lanka Samudra" which comprises an area of about 7.5 times of our land area as stated earlier.

(b) The continental shelf is beyond the Lanka Samudra and is limited by the continental margin as indicated under Article 76 of the UNCLOS. This area is presently not defined as yet and would have to be clearly defined and delineated for claims to be accepted by UNCLOS on the basis of sediment thickness. Its approximate area is delineated in the accompanying map.

Recent findings of the Nature of the geoid and anomalies and potential for hydrocarbon.

It is well known that in the Middle East where hydrocarbon is being explored, is situated in an area that has what is known as a low or negative geoid and gravity anomalies. Therefore the presence of geoid and gravity anomalies within the Lanka Samudra is of great significance and portends a significant economic source of hydrocarbon for Sri Lanka. In fact the late Dr. R. S. Mather, a Sri Lankan, who was earlier working in our own Survey Department, had recorded the largest registered geodetic anomalies in the ocean space south eaost of Sri Lanka which we would now indicate and describe.

The distances of separation between the Geoid and the Ellipsoid, referred to as geoidal undulation or geoidal height, typically reach amounts of 65 to 100 feet (20 to 30 metres) over the continents, while recent findings on data based on the SEASAT have indicated larger differences, on the research done by the late Dr. R. S. Mather, while working with NASA and the University of New South Wales in Australia. In 1978, NASA again engaged him and his research team to analyze the Geos - 3 Satellite data and determine a precise geoid topography of the ocean.

Satellite observations have revealed the existence of large negative Geoid Anomaly centred off the eastern coast of our Island, east of Batticaloa. This is known as the "Sri Lanka Low", and is the most intensive negative anomaly (about 104 metres) on the surface of the earth. This is indicative of the presence of hydrocarbon.

Residual gravity anomaly maps are normally maps obtained after removing the effects due to the oceanic ridges from the worldwide free air anomaly maps. These also show an extensive negative anomaly over the South Indian Ocean. With its centre situated close to the east coast of Sri Lanka. Residual Anomalies throughout most of the area in the range of 20 to 35 mgal (miligal), except between the Ninety East and Chagos-Laccadive ridges close to the south of Sri Lanka, where the average reaches - 51 mgal. These anomalies extend over very large areas and reflect lateral density variations in the uppermantle and the mantle transition zone or below. Direct measurement of the Geoid anomalies over the marine areas is now possible with the help of the Orbiting Radar Altimeters like SKYLAB, GEOS-3, SEASAT-I etc. Independent measurements of both geoid and gravity anomalies are therefore available for oceanic regions due to the pioneering research work done by a team of research scientists sponsored by the NASA and headed by the late Dr. R.S. Mather, as stated earlier. This information on the largest anomalies in the world portends the presence of hydrocarbon in sea areas within the Lanka Samudra and the PRA LANKA SAMUDRA and would be of utmost economic importance to us.

Living and non living resources

The large area falling within the jurisdiction of Sri Lanka has given us much hope for the economic development of Sri Lanka in the next millennium, as it involves the exploitation of the natural resources on and below the sea in a total area almost 25 times the land area of our country. The immensely rich Natural Resources lying at our doorstep have not been investigated. Neither has the potential for the unknown resources lying in the South of Sri Lanka up to the South Pole been comprehended.

The wealth and resources within this vast area are enormous. Their exploration and exploitation will make Sri Lanka one of the richest countries in Asia. The resources are broadly:

1. Ocean bed minerals

2. Petroleum, gas and shale

3. Potential for energy generation (OTEC as well as the emerging ocean current technology)

4. Fishery resources

5. Rights resources including possible levies on international shipping moving through this zone

It is important to access and to manage these resources carefully after surveying them, mapping them out and formulating short, medium and long term plans for their

1. Exploration

2. Development

3. Conservation

4. Surveillance

It is necessary to remind us that it has taken us over a hundred years after the formation of the Survey Department in 1800, to get a framework even to map our natural resources. This was accomplished after the framework for the surveys were done by establishing a network of geodetic triangles and a level network to determine the levels, followed by the compilation of the topographical sheets at the beginning of this century. It was only after the compilation of these base maps that it was possible to indicate the different natural resources on that base from geology, forests, irrigation, water resources, soils etc.

Today, however, we have new methodologies of science and technology using the full range of the electro-magnetic spectrum for making the basic survey measurements, using different remote sensing techniques, and thereafter to determine the resources both living and non-living.

5. Exploration and exploitation of the resources under the sea

The task of exploration and exploitation of the living and non-living resources of the sea should include measures for prevention of other countries from exploitation of our resources. Thus this would also require surveillance. This Herculean task of exploring and exploitation would devolve on the Scientists and Technologists of Sri Lanka involved in geodesy. Hydrography and Oceanography for a start.

The task, without doubt, has to be meticulously planned, and its activities closely monitored. We have to first establish control surveys and establish the requisite Geodetic network and level network in relation to the ellipsoid, for subsequent reference for use.

The fact that we took a hundred years after the establishment of the survey Department in 1800 need not bother us too much, as today with the new tools of science and technology, it could be done in a very much shorter period. It is the right type of scientist and technologist that has to be mobilised and motivated. It is very essential that the task is properly understood and executed by persons with a vision to future economic development of Sri Lanka.

However, the first priority is delineating the limits of the continental shelf, which we have designated as Pra Lanka Samudra because its extent is defined.