A U.S.-based geospatial imaging-analysis firm on Thursday defended its report alleging that anchored Chinese ships were dumping raw sewage in Philippine territorial reefs in the South China Sea, causing environmental destruction that could take decades to recover.
Officials in Beijing have rebuked the report by the company Simularity, “Sewage from Anchored Ships is Damaging Spratly Reefs,” while officials in the Philippines questioned its accuracy. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman described it as a joke. In Manila, the Philippine defense chief called for an investigation into the report’s allegations despite casting doubt.
Simularity found high concentrations of chlorophyll-a around hundreds of ships moored around the Spratly Islands, said Liz Derr, the firm’s co-founder and CEO, adding this indicated an abundance of phytoplankton and plant material – including fleshy algae – in the water and on the reefs.
“In terms of determining where that chlorophyll is coming from, it’s a bit of a smoking gun that we are seeing big blooms of plants right where the ships are,” Derr told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) during an online forum on Thursday.
Simularity said it had compared recent satellite images of Philippine-territorial reefs with ones taken in 2016 and found a significant increase in areas that appeared white – or those covered in chlorophyll-a – and a decrease in dark areas – or those that lacked chlorophyll.
“I’ve really got no other explanation for why there’s this big bloom of plants and chlorophyll right next to these ships,” Derr said.
To rule out other factors that may be causing this overgrowth, such as climate change or rising ocean temperatures, Derr said Singularity looked for but could not find unoccupied reefs for comparison.
Excess phytoplankton can deplete oxygen in the water and asphyxiate fish and other marine life, according to marine experts. The uncontrolled growth of algae and other plants can overtake coral reefs and destroy marine habitat.
“The excess nutrients in sewage are causing elevated concentrations of chlorophyll-a, leading to a cascade of reef damage that can take decades to recover,” the report said in its summary.
During his daily media briefing on Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian did not name the company but mocked its findings.
“This is one of the best jokes recently. China strongly condemns the U.S. firm who distort[s] facts, violates professional ethics, and maliciously start[s] rumors to denigrate China,” he said.
The spokesman said China was willing to work with its neighbors to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea.
China claims nearly all of the strategic waterway as its own, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have their own territorial claims. Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, despite Beijing claiming historic rights to parts of the maritime region that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
Simularity based its report on satellite images which, it said, linked chlorophyll-a concentrations to Chinese ships anchored within Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“For this report we only used images from the European Space Agency, primarily because they are freely available, and enable anyone to reproduce our results,” Derr told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, in an email. “Our research is based solely on analysis of the satellite images, and freely available imagery, algorithms, and scientific papers that validate our approach.”
Simularity published its report on Monday, the fifth anniversary of a landmark international case in which the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of Manila in a Philippines lawsuit against China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea.
The report’s lead photo showing a ship discharging waste at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was taken in 2014.
Honing in on that image, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Tuesday questioned the report’s findings.
“Therefore, this intent to mislead has cast great doubt on the accurateness of the Simularity Report,” he said while challenging conclusions based solely on satellite images.
“Be that as it may, I have directed the Western Command who has jurisdiction over the WPS to verify and investigate,” Lorenzana said, using an acronym for the West Philippine Sea, Manila’s term for its South China Sea territories.
During her virtual meeting with Philippine journalists, Derr addressed concerns about the photo. She said it was used to illustrate the story, while conceding that the credit line for its source was small.
“It was for context, because it was really hard to see that and understand it from the satellite imagery. At this point, I do regret it because it created some misunderstandings that I think have derailed the message a little bit. Our research is not based on that image,” Derr said.
Chinese ships in Philippine waters
In March, security officials in Manila reported that about 220 ships, including some they alleged were manned by Chinese maritime militia, had anchored in Philippine waters, setting off a diplomatic spat.
Beijing claimed the ships were fishing boats taking shelter from bad weather, and insisted the area was its territory. It called Manila’s complaint an “unnecessary irritation.”
Philippine officials later noted that Chinese ships lingered at Whitsun Reef and other waters of the EEZ. In April, Manila’s foreign office started filing daily diplomatic protests demanding Beijing remove the ships.
On June 17, Simularity counted what it identified as at least 236 ships in the Union Banks and 11 others around Thitu Island, a civilian-inhabited outpost controlled by Manila. It estimated those ships were dumping at least 1,177 kg (2,594 pounds) of sewage at the Union Banks alone.
Derr told the journalists that dumping sewage into the sea was commonplace since international law allowed it beyond 12 nautical miles of any coast. The issue the study raised is the release of waste by ships anchored on reefs, a violation of international and Chinese laws.
China regulations stipulate that its ships may release sewage only when they are moving at a speed of at least four knots.
“Ships dump sewage all day every day all over the world. This is not anything special. The fact that they’re not moving makes this a concern,” Derr said.
She said the problem could be solved by directing ships to move away from reefs before dumping their sewage.
“The waste is a problem and there are ways to resolve that problem that don’t involve an international incident,” she said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.