Hontiveros: We have to sum up damage done by China in WPS reefs

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 19) — Sen. Risa Hontiveros is calling on China to pay damages after the East Asian country was suspected of harvesting and destroying coral reefs in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), saying it can be figured through calculations done by academic institutions.

“There's really a way of computing the monetary value of such damaged or destroyed ecosystems,” she told CNN Philippines’ The Source on Tuesday, adding that it was “shocking” to see the state of marine life and reef ecosystem in the video presented by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

On Sept. 16, the military said the suspected damaged corals at Rozul Reef, also known as Iroquois Reef, in the WPS were spotted by Navy personnel during an initial assessment after they drove away Chinese vessels from the reef in July.

On Monday, PCG spokesperson for WPS Commodore Jay Tarriela confirmed the "severe damage" in marine environment and coral reef in the seabed of Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal — areas frequented by Chinese maritime militia.

RELATED: ‘Concerning resurgence’: AFP reports more Chinese fishing vessels swarming West PH Sea

Hontiveros said the government must sum up all the environmental damage in the WPS, stressing this was “just the latest [incident]” of “abuse” done by China to the Philippines along the contested waterway.

She also recalled a similar incident in 2013 when a United States vessel ran aground at the Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and damaged 2,346 square meters of coral reefs. Washington paid Manila a total of ₱87 million in 2015.

The pending Philippine Ecosystem and Natural Capital Accounting System bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Loren Legarda, will put into law the calculation used by international marine scientific institutes, Hontiveros said.

In a Senate resolution in April 2020, Hontiveros said “unlawful Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea are estimated to have caused at least 33 billion pesos of damage annually to marine ecosystems within the Philippines' continental shelf and exclusive economic zone since Philippines vs. China was filed in 2013."

This was, at the time, Hontiveros’ bid for China to pay the expenses of the Philippines’ COVID-19 response.

In the resolution, the senator said the annual baseline value per hectare of coral reef was at $335,429 based on a 2012 study published in the international academic journal Ecosystem Services.

She said satellite images showed that Chinese activities “had caused ecological damage to a total of 1,850 hectares of reef ecosystem in Panatag and the Spratly Islands.”

“On top of what China owes the BIR (Bureau of Internal Revenue), for example, in taxes on the POGOs and that’s just on land, dito naman sa karagatan medyo humahaba ‘yong listahan ng utang ng Tsina sa atin [China’s list of debts regarding marine matters becomes longer] in terms of damaging or destroying or illegally harvesting for example, giant clams in other parts of the West Philippine Sea,” she said during the interview.

Jay Batongbacal, executive director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said continued damage to these marine ecosystems could lead to a "collapse" of fisheries in the area.

Hontiveros also noted that areas where Chinese vessels frequently swarm have big deposits of oil and natural gas that the Philippines should have the exclusive right to benefit from.