Simularity, a satellite imagery firm based in the U.S., early this week claimed China was dumping sewage in the West Philippine Sea, adding to its transgressions in the area that include harassing Filipino fishermen and building artificial islands.
The findings, based on geospatial analysis of satellite data, was released on the fifth anniversary of an international arbitration court's ruling that favored the Philippines and invalidated China's vast claims to the resource-rich waters.
China has apparently been dumping tons of untreated human waste—so much so "that you can see it from space", Simularity CEO Liz Derr told a forum of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.
But what exactly is 'it'?
Derr defended Simularity's findings after Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and other officials, dismissed their report as "fake" due to their use of a stock photo.
In the latest presentation, a "very well-credited" image of a sad poop emoji had taken over the slide, as Derr clarified that their analysis wasn't at all based on the image they used.
An hour after her presentation, the Chinese Embassy in Manila in a Twitter thread said the report was full of lies, done by "some anti-China forces" to incite "hatred and Sinophobia in the Philippines.".
Simularity had taken satellite data of the different reefs and outcrops of the West Philippine Sea where China's vessels have maintained their presence.
In this composite photo of Johnson South Reef in the Union Banks for example, it compared two shots of the same area where the one on the right, taken using multispectral imagery, reveals a different and even bigger story.
Detected by Simularity "under a certain band of non-visible light", the black and white image reveals concentrations of chlorophyll blooms (white dots encircled in the photo), which happen to "line up perfectly" to the dots where the ships in the left photo are, Derr said.
These white "trails" are actually chlorophyll fluorescence or light re-emmitted by chlorophyll-a molecules undergoing photosynthetic energy conversion. As taught in elementary science, photosynthesis, the process through which plants make their own food, uses the green pigment that is chlorophyll-a.
So what do feces have anything do with these chlorophyll blooms? Think of how animal poop is typically used as fertilizers for plants, Derr said.
As with all bodies of water, the West Philippine Sea is filled with plant-like organisms like algae and phytoplankton. While they are generally helpful as they are at the bottom of the ocean's food chain, their overconsumption of "nutrients" or fertilizers can lead to dense blooms that could deplete oxygen in the waters, suffocating other marine life.
The trails indicate that in areas where the Chinese ships are parked, something must have been providing "excessive nutrients" to the sea plants, causing them to grow that much, Derr said.
Algal and phytoplankton blooms typically happen in coastlines, where people usually "dump sewage" such as runoffs from fertilized agricultural areas, eroded riverbanks, land clearing, and sewage effluent.
But in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, "there really isn't any of those other sources. Really, it's sewage effluent," Derr said, noting they are wastewater from ships or from human settlements in the islands. China has both.
How much feces exactly?
Simularity estimates that over 2,596 lbs (1,177.526 kg) of untreated human waste are being dumped by China per day in the West Philippine Sea, based on its last count of ships spotted in the Union Banks.
For comparison, a sack of rice is 50 kg. That's roughly 23 sacks of rice per day, except that it's poop.
According to a long-time Filipino seafarer reportr talked to, liquid waste like feces have to go through a cleansing process before they can be thrown into the ocean to avoid pollution.
"Mayroon 'yan sewage water treatment tank na nilalagyan ng gamot tapos gigilingin bago itapon sa dagat. Tubig na yan sa gitna ng dagat pero malinis na yan," he said, noting dumping of untreated waste is strictly prohibited, subject to sanctions that can vary per country.
For China, it's not even 'poop and leave'
China's discharge may have only been known to the public on Monday, but it's been "going on for a while" and "in addition" to the damage brought by its building of artificial islands, overfishing, and mass harvesting of clams, among others, Simularity said.
In this image of the Union Banks, Simularity shows areas inhabited by Chinese vessels, which are all within the Philippines EEZ.
In Thitu Reef, where Pag-asa Island is located, the presence of Chinese ships is constant.
"They've been there quite a bit. It's not just a little visit where they poop and leave," Derr said.
What this means for the future
Based on satellite photos alone, features of the different reefs in the West Philippine Sea are experiencing "loss of differentiation". This is indicative of how plants are taking over, suffocating the marine environment on top of "ocean acidification caused by climate change", she said.
Why does the health of Spratly reefs matter? Coral reef fish areas are a major source of protein for about 85% of coastal inhabitants of the Philippines.
The sea is known for "habitat connectivity", wherein because of ocean currents, eggs and larvae of different corals, fish, and other invertebrates can travel to other farway reefs, marine scientist Deo Florence Onda earlier told reportr.
"So ibig sabihin yung WPS source siya ng mga organisms sa mga reefs sa countries like Indonesia. Ibig sabihin kung source siya, kaya niyang ireplenish yung mga sirang reefs sa ibang bansa, ibang areas. Kaya niyang ireplenish yung damaged reefs," he said.
The size of the fish stock in the South China Sea is also directly linked to the health of its reefs, studies said.
"The fact that it impacts all the bordering nations means that this issue of declining fish stock is not just a matter for the Philippines and their Union Banks inside the EEZ," Derr said. If unmitigated, "it can lead to a hunger crisis in coastal regions.. and a collapse of commercial fishing in the South China Sea," she said.
In the past 10 to 15 years, coral cover in the South China Sea declined by an average of 67% while total fish stocks have declined by 66% to 77% in 20 years.
"The cascade is going and it's going worse as we sit here and watch these ships. Nothing is being done to address this problem and much is being done to make it worse," Derr said.