Dumping by Chinese-flagged vessels damaging marine ecosystem, report finds

Dumping by Chinese-flagged vessels damaging marine ecosystem, report finds

Joseph Hammond

Maritime waste dumped by Chinese-flagged vessels is causing significant damage to a fragile ecosystem around Philippine atolls and islands, according to a July 2021 report by a geospatial analytics company.

Satellite imagery detected at least 236 Chinese vessels in Philippine waters in the Union Banks and a further 11 around Thitu Island, pictured, in June 2021, according to the report by the United States-based firm Simularity, titled “Sewage from Anchored Ships is Damaging Spratly Reefs.” Those vessels dumped more than 1 ton of waste, the report found. Other impacted areas in the South China Sea include Pagkakaisa Reef, Johnson Reef, McKennan (Hughes) Reef and other reefs in the Spratly Islands.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims historic rights to much of the South China Sea, the eastern portions of which encompass the West Philippine Sea. However, the PRC’s arbitrary assertion is disputed by other claimants, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, and was rejected as legally invalid by an international tribunal in 2016.

Although vessels are permitted to dump waste when more than 19 kilometers out to sea, the practice is banned near reefs and atolls.

“If it can be proven that the vessels are indeed Chinese, the Philippines can definitely file a case against them as such activities would mark a breach of international law,” Zhea Katrina Estrada, a professor at the Philippines’ University of Santo Tomas, told FORUM.

Estrada, a former analyst with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, added that “the Philippine government must be firm on its stand to uphold the 2016 Hague ruling to protect the country’s territory and sovereignty and avoid future situations such as this.”

Simularity’s findings, which are based on data from the European Space Agency, come as the Philippines has provided evidence of a growing number of Chinese-flagged vessels intruding into its waters. Manila announced in March 2021 that about 220 Chinese vessels had anchored in its waters, including some vessels that are part of the PRC’s so-called maritime militia.

Beijing claimed those vessels were seeking shelter from a storm and has disputed the claims in the Simularity report.

Chinese-flagged vessels also have been accused of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the West Philippine Sea, where sewage dumping could harm the marine ecosystem and further deplete fish stocks that are a major source of sustenance and livelihoods for the region.

Ralph Recto, president pro tempore of the Philippine Senate, urged the government to protest the dumping activities and threatened legal action against the PRC.

“By turning reefs into toilets, two man-made things are now visible from space: the Great Wall of China on land and the Great Wastes of China at sea,” Recto told lawmakers in mid-July.

“If properly prosecuted, this will stand as a landmark case that should be emulated in future environmental crimes within the contested seas,” Chester Cabalza, president of the International Development and Security Cooperation, a Philippine think tank, told FORUM. “Otherwise, the Philippines continues to become vulnerable in its own lack of enforcement of laws.”

Joseph Hammond is a FORUM contributor who reports from the Indo-Pacific region.