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East Asia Acts To Clean Up Its Seas – OpEd

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The ASEAN meet here may not have discussed this but there is no hiding the fact that East Asia’s seas — comprising only 2.5 percent of the total surface area of the world’s oceans — are perhaps the dirtiest in the world.

At least four Southeast Asian countries — China, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam — are spewing out the most trash in the world’s oceans, 60 percent of which are plastic, the US non-profit Ocean Conservancy said, sparking regional concern that perhaps there are now more trash in the seas than fish.

The East Asian seas are shared by China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and majority of the ASEAN nations like the Philippines. Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Timor Leste.

What is deplorable is that besides trash, East Asia’s seas suffer from massive oil spills and other forms of pollution earning it the an infamous name, the World’s International Backwater Lane”. ASEAN and East Asian nations don’t like this, so behind the glitter and media spotlights, even as they acknowledge the damage wrought by pollution in the seas, they agreed to give a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)-initiated program a shot in the arm through a massive clean-up of the waters surrounding the region.

East Asia Seas Plan

The UNEP East Asian plan has been drawn aimed at protecting and developing the marine environment and coastal areas of East Asia. The plan aims member nations to contribute not only to resolving environmental problems commonly faced by the participating States, but should also strengthen co-operation in other related areas of interest as reflected in, inter alia, the Conference on Technical Co-operation among Developing Countries, the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, the LJNDP/CCOP Project on Regional Offshore Prospecting in East Asia, the South China Sea Fisheries Development and Co-ordinating Programme and the IOC Working Group for the Western Pacific (WESTPAC). Asian Fisheries Development Centre (SEAFDEC), and ASEAN, including its ASCOPE, Expert.

The action plan is to be implemented primarily through national and regional institutions of the participating States by way of co-ordinated national sub-regional and regional activities. The agreement, hailed by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP), as a “beginning of a new era of cooperation among the states in the region to develop their common marine area in an environmentally-sound manner”, calls for the assessment of the effects of human activities on the marine environment.

Called the East Asian Seas Plan, the ambitious program calls for an assessment of the effects of man’s activities such as the degradation of coral reefs and mangroves on the marine environment. It also called for the creation of a regional data exchange system on marine environment. It will give attention to managing domestic, industrial and agricultural wastes which are often discharged or dumped into coastal waters without treatment.

On oil pollution control, the program will implement comprehensive training activities on the prevention and combating of oil spills and on investigating and curbing operational pollution from ships.

The East Asian seas technically belong to the Pacific Ocean, with the exception of Andaman sea which belongs to the Indian ocean. The other East Asian seas are the Straits of Malacca, China sea, Java sea, Flores sea, Banda sea, Arafura sea, Timor sea, Celebes sea, Sulu sea and the Philippine sea. Together, they comprise an area of 9.84 million square kilometers which represent 2.5 percent of the surface of all oceans. The East Asian seas virtually touch the shores of ASEAN countries — Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Brunei, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Worsening Coral Reef Destruction

Existing data on coral reefs in the region indicate that most of the reefs are in poor shape. In the Philippines where most of the region’s coral studies are being undertaken, about 40 percent of the coral reefs are considered poor while only 5 percent are in excellent shape.

Most of the coral reef destruction in the region are being caused by pollution, siltation and destructive methods of fishing like the illegal use of dynamites.

The current coral reefs in East Asia also suffer from sewage, and runoff from fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals, The increase in human activity caused by an increase in human population and an increase in tourist activity are taking their toll on existing coral reefs such as over-fishing, cyanide fishing, scuba diving, boat activity, and anchor damage.

The mangroves of East Asia are among the most threatened ecosystems on earth. Current estimates indicate that up to 67% of mangroves have been lost to date, and nearly all unprotected mangroves could perish over the next 100 years.

The East Asia Seas plan demands member nations to engage deeply in supporting the conservation of mangroves, while advancing the sustainable development of local communities who interact closely with them and depend on their goods and services. The plan will also lead in an active role in climate change mitigation through the conservation, protection, restoration and sustainable use of coastal and marine ecosystems, focusing on mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrasses.

In the past, very little attention has been focused on the region’s mangrove forests which occupy about five million hectares. These forests are wantonly exploited for their timber or converted into fishponds, settlements and reclaimed for commercial intents.

Worsening Oil Pollution

The East Asian seas are constantly plied by shipping of all kinds. The Straits of Malacca and Singapore have the highest number of tankers passing daily than any comparable stretch of water.

This has resulted to some of the worse oil spills because of numerous sea collisions. For instance, 5,000 tons of crude oil polluted the seas in 1975 when the ship Showa Maru ran aground in the Malacca Strait. It cost 79 million dollars to partially clean it up. Pollution affected adversely the marine ecosystem.

Environmentalists are also raising alarm of pollution from offshore oil and petroleum exploration ventures, especially in the coasts of Brunei and Indonesia. They do not discount oil well blowouts like that which occurred in the Gulf of Campeche, Mexico in 1979.

The East Asia seas have “pollution hotspots” or marine pollution hotspots which receive severe pollution loads. These are in Manila Bay, Strait of Malacca, Gulf of Thailand and Bohai sea.

Found mainly in enclosed and/or semi-enclosed bodies of water like bays and river mouths, these areas are associated with highly urbanized and densely populated cities. They pose a constant threat to public health, coastal resources, and the integrity of coastal ecosystems.

High levels of pollutants have been found in a number of bays, gulfs and inner seas. In the South China Sea alone, there are more than 35 pollution hotspots and 26 “sensitive” and “high pollution risk” areas.

Northern China’s Bohai Sea is also considered a pollution hotspot due to the tremendous amounts of land-based pollutants being discharged in the area.

In the Philippines, the Manila Bay is constantly threatened by pollution, as well as overfishing, uncontrolled coastal development and habitat degradation. Just recently, the government launched a massive clean-up sustained by thousands of volunteers, mostly students, carried out every week.

The East Asia seas plan will be reviewed by ASEAN and East Asian countries next year to determine if it will have sole responsibility in implementing the activities.

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Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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