Earl G. Parreno

THEY are some of the most destructive land reclamation projects in the country. But unlike other planned developments that have become controversial because of their adverse impact on the environment, these are all taking place almost under the radar. China’s land reclamation projects on reefs, islets and rocks in the Spratly Islands—and their impact not just on the country’s national, but more significantly, food security—are hardly catching the public’s attention.

Sunset on the South China Sea off M?i Né village on the south-east coast of Vietnam | Photo from en.wikipedia.org

Sunset on the South China Sea off M?i Né village on the south-east coast of Vietnam | Photo from en.wikipedia.org

Yet, China’s aggressive action in the disputed areas in the South China Sea may lead to a catastrophic collapse of marine biodiversity and fishery in this part of the globe.

“This issue goes beyond territorial dispute,” says Vince Cinches, Oceans Campaigner of Greenpeace. “Reclamation projects in biodiversity impact areas are irresponsible.”

Cinches says that China’s reclamation in the South China Sea, now estimated to have reached 311 hectares, are destroying some US$100 million a year of what is called the Coral Reef Ecosystem Services, quoting a study conducted by Emeritus Prof. Edgardo D. Gomez of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute.

Ecosystem services are direct and indirect contribution of the ecosystem to the survival and quality of human life. They include food and other raw materials the ecosystem provides, as well as its role in regulating climate and moderating ecological disturbances.

Concretely, the reclamation of 311 hectares would translate into a 20 percent reduction of fish catch in the area. It could affect more than 12,000 fishers in four provinces of the country namely, Pangasinan, Zambales, Bataan and Palawan. In 2014, some 21,186.8 metric tons of fish were harvested in the South China Sea, according to estimates by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). This could go down to just 17,000 metric tons this year, based on Greenpeace’s figures.

But China, which is claiming 85.7 percent of the 3.5 million-hectare South China Sea as its own, is planning to build bigger islands from the reefs and underwater rocks. This would mean greater destruction to the reef ecosystem in the area. For instance, in Mischief Reef (also called Panganiban Reef), just 112 nautical miles from Palawan and well within the 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, China has built an artificial islet that now measures around 3.2 hectares. Based on satellite photos, this reclamation project, which started only in January this year, can reach at least 500 hectares when done. China has reclamation activities on seven reefs in the Spratly’s at present.

View the lecture of Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio on the South China Sea issue below.

“Reefs are the breeding ground of fish,” says Cinches, “but the Spratly Islands is also important in larval dispersal.” He explains that when the eggs spawned by the fish on the reefs in the Spratly’s are hatched these are carried by the ocean currents to as far as Indonesia where they grow and mature.

“Destroying the reef ecosystem in the Spratly Islands affects the fish supply not just in our country but in the neighboring countries as well,” Cinches points out.

China contends that the reclamations are intended to “improve the living and working conditions of those stationed on the islands.” When it occupied Mischief Reef in 1995, it rationalized its action by saying that the reef will provide “shelter” to its fishermen. Several years on, however, Chinese troops stationed in the reef are shooing away Filipino fishers trying to make a living from the bountiful marine resources in the area. In fact, China has appropriated for itself the fishery resources in the whole South China Sea, with its heavily armed coast guard fleets patrolling the area.

Indeed, China’s aggressive action in the South China Sea is not only gobbling up Philippine territory. It is also eating up the country’s fish supply. A grave matter that the public should know, and act on.

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