Apart from continuously violating the country’s maritime territorial domain, the more than 230 Chinese ships spotted recently in various areas within the West Philippine Sea have also apparently dumped tons of their refuse or raw sewage into the country’s exclusive economic zone.
Liz Derr, co-founder and CEO of US geospatial firm Simularity, made the disclosure during the webinar hosted by Stratbase ADR Institute on Monday.
The event celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Arbitral Award rendered by the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines in July 12, 2016, where it invalidated China’s nine-dash line claims over the South China Sea and upheld Manila’s exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea.
“The hundreds of ships that are anchored there are dumping raw sewage onto the reefs they are occupying,” said Derr, citing verified satellite imagery.
According to the Simularity official, sewage effluent sources in the Spratly Islands include ship wastewater and human habitation which lack sufficient sewage treatment.
“When the ships don’t move, the poop piles up,” Derr said.
She lamented that the emerging problem cannot be easily flushed away.
Derr said human activity in the Spratly Islands is damaging the coral reefs that supply food for millions of people in the region.
Based on satellite images gathered by Simularity, damage to reefs in some parts of the Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea in the last five years caused by sewage effluent is “visible from space”, aside from the marine destruction caused by China’s artificial-island building and illegal harvest of giant clams.
“This needs to stop immediately. China, stop shitting on the Spratlys,” Derr said, in her emotional presentation during the forum.
“This is a catastrophe of epic proportions, and we are close to the point of no return. This needs to stop immediately,” she added.
“The damage to the reefs in just the last 5 years is visible from space,” she said, noting that this was in addition to the well-documented reef destruction wrought by China’s giant clam harvesting and artificial island building.”
During her presentation, Derr noted that Chinese ships were dumping raw sewage in Union (Pagkakaisa) Banks, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“The anchored ships are creating chlorophyll-a blooms in the Union Banks, and we can see that from satellite imagery,” she said of the images taken in June 2021.
Derr added that some areas were seen with “increased nutrients from sewage effluent” or “increased chlorophyll-a.”
Chlorophyll-a refers to a measure of phytoplankton, which in excess can actually involve a process that ends up creating a hypoxic ‘’dead zone” at the bottom of the sea floor.
On reefs, Derr said the excess chlorophyll-a indicates the amount of plant material, such as fleshy algae that is on the reef.
“The excess nutrients in the sewage are causing elevated concentrations of chlorophyll-a, leading to a cascade of reef damage that can take decades to recover even with active mitigation,” she warned.
On Johnson South and Tetley Reefs, satellite images showed a few ships with “shits that correspond to them that show up in the chlorophyll-a view” in June 2021.
Satellite images taken on Ross, Lansdowne and Hughes Reefs compared from May 2016 and June 2021 showed overgrowth of algae in the last five years.
“Those dark areas which are areas without chlorophyll have disappeared, and more high white areas have increased and the overall loss of differentiation of the reef features is caused by plants, overtaking those distinct features,” Derr said.
“Part of that damage is the sewage that these anchored ships, more than 200 of them, are dumping into that reef water. And it gets worse, it’s not just plants, overtaking a few reefs here,” she said.
“It’s not just a few leaks of sewage. The problem is, even small increases in nutrients can tip the balance towards algae,” she added.
Derr warned that damaging these reefs directly affects the fish stocks of the entire South China Sea and “can lead to a hunger crisis in coastal regions and a collapse of commercial fishing” in the region.
Nonetheless, she admitted that there are also other factors, like overfishing, fishers’ use of rocks as anchors, and dynamite fishing that further exacerbate the devastation in the area.
“The health of the Spratly reefs basically feeds the inhabitants of the entire coastal region of the South China Sea,” Derr said.
The larva for the fish that inhabit the South China Sea, she said, come largely from coral reefs, and the larvae from the Spratly reefs, get distributed around the South China Sea by the winter and summer monsoons.
Many of the inhabitants of the reefs are food for the fish that make up the supply for nations around the South China Sea, including the Philippines.
“The size of the fish stock in the South China Sea is directly linked to the health of its reefs,” Derr said.
She also presented a report showing “nurseries” that generate larvae that become the adult fish stock that make up fishery stock in Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia.
“This emphasizes the fact that this is not a problem for one nation and defending one economic zone. This is something that we have to work together to address,” lamented Derr, who was disheartened by the level of destruction brought by the Chinese ships’ dumping of poop in the West Philippine Sea.