In a country crazy about Very Important Persons (VIP), it’s depressing that news about an ecological disaster in another VIP—the Verde Island Passage—has been getting little media attention.
I first read about the disaster in the British newspaper The Guardian because local media coverage tended to be buried in the inside pages. In contrast, The Guardian, CNN News, BBC, and other international media outlets have been giving daily coverage including photographs and video coverage.
The disaster began Feb. 28 when the tanker MT Princess Empress, carrying some 800,000 liters of industrial oil, sank off the coast of Naujan in Oriental Mindoro. It took several days before the government located the sunken ship, which by then was leaking black oil. When the provincial board of Oriental Mindoro passed a resolution declaring a state of calamity on Mar. 6, 77 coastal villages had already been affected.
Since then, the oil spill has been reported from as far as Palawan. The UP Marine Science Institute, which issues frequent bulletins on its website, reports the most significant damage to natural resources in the Cuyo Islands. It also projects that with the weakening of the “amihan” or eastern monsoon winds, the oil spill will be moving north to affect Batangas.
We’ve had oil spills in the past, the last one being in 2013 when a Napocor barge spilled oil into Estancia, Iloilo. Before that, there was the spill in Guimaras strait in 2006, which destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of fisherfolk and is considered the worst spill in Philippine history. This time around, environmentalists are more worried about VIP, the strait between Batangas and Mindoro islands, which has been called the center of the center of marine shore biodiversity in the world, with coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass, reef fish, sea turtles, whales, and dolphins. Many research projects have been conducted in the area, notably by the Batangas State University and the University of the Philippines’ Marine Science Institute to better understand marine biodiversity.
Some 2 million Filipinos live in the area, depending on its resources for food and tourism. Photographs published in The Guardian showed previously white beaches now turned black. Seabirds, too, have turned from white to black.
The photographs also show the pitiful state of disaster mitigation for oil spills in the Philippines, with the personnel—including local residents being paid by local government to bring in some income to replace their fishing—trudging along the oil on beaches in slippers.
The Philippine Coast Guard’s spokesperson Rear Admiral Armando Balilo admitted that salvage operations have been hampered by their lack of mechanical equipment to reach the sunken ship so they can siphon off the oil.
The oil spill has affected the health of residents, causing nausea, cramps, diarrhea, respiratory problems, and eye irritation. Drinking water has been shipped into the affected areas because the oil spill has made the water nonpotable.
There are 36 marine protected areas there but the area as a whole has not been declared a National Integrated Protected Area System or Nipas, which would infuse more funds and personnel for management.
An interfaith environmentalist coalition has also called the public’s attention to another threat to VIP, this time with the installation of several liquefied natural gas (LNG) centers in the province of Batangas. Paradoxically, the LNGs are meant to reduce dependence on oil, but environmentalists are worried that the infrastructure needed for the LNG plants will disrupt the ecology of the area. A change in the hydrodynamics would change water currents and waves and adversely affect the ecosystems.
About 20 years ago when I was working with a US nonprofit foundation prioritizing environmental issues, I met many scientists whose faces would light up when I’d mention the Philippines. Inevitably they would ask about our VIP and the Philippines being a “hot spot” for biodiversity.
In the long term, we need to talk more about VIP and our other natural treasures to explain why they are so important. The VIP emergency is about the next generation of Filipinos being deprived of many of the natural wonders we’re taking for granted today.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.