By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE GOVERNMENT of Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. should develop a people-centered and preventive approach to marine disasters as part of a bigger plan to harness the ocean economy, scientists said.

The Philippines, just like many coastal states, “does not have the capability to respond to marine disasters such as a massive oil spill,” Rhodora V. Azanza, who heads the ASEAN Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation’s marine science and technology sub-committee, said in an e-mail.

The government had always focused on disaster response rather than on prevention, she said, adding that it has failed to develop a marine disaster prevention system that is scientific and innovative. 

“It should be the concern particularly of countries that depend on the coasts and seas for the survival of many of their communities and the potential development of their blue economy such as the Philippine archipelago with its vast marine resources,” said Ms. Azanza, who is also professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines (UP) Marine Science Institute.

Philippine authorities have been scrambling to contain an oil spill from a sunken fuel tanker that has affected many coastal areas, including a world-renowned passage where charismatic marine species could be found.

The Philippine Coast Guard on Monday said it collected 900 liters of oily water mixture during its Sunday offshore response operations, bringing the total from Mar. 1 to 26 to 9,463 liters.

For shoreline response, the agency collected 137 sacks of oil-contaminated materials on Sunday, resulting in 3,514.5 sacks and 22 drums of waste collected from 13 affected villages in the towns of Naujan, Bulalacao and Pola in Oriental Mindoro from Mar. 1. to 26, it said in a statement.

In its latest report, the UP Marine Science Institute said easterlies or winds coming from the east might blow the slick from the sunken vessel to the west through the Verde Island Passage.

The strait is just 12 kilometers away from Puerto Galera, a popular beach and diving destination in Oriental Mindoro province. The town is still oil spill-free, at least for now. 

“The majority of our people rely on the tourism industry for their livelihood,” Christian Manalo, a diver and member of Puerto Galera’s tourism sector, said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “If the oil spill reaches our dive spots, it will have significant and long-lasting consequences both for the environment and the people.”

The UP-MSI, which has been closely monitoring the oil spill’s movement, earlier said the oil spill might reach Puerto Galera — something that has angered Mayor Rocky D. Ilagan after trips to his town got canceled.

“We have a lot of tourist cancellations because of what MSI did,” he told a news briefing last week. “They should be responsible with their statements and think about people’s livelihood because, in actuality, the oil spill has not reached us.”

The UP-MSI has been releasing projections to encourage local governments to prepare in case the oil spill reaches their shores.

Community empowerment should be at the heart of any marine disaster prevention programs, said Jayvee Ablaña Saco, president of the Philippine Association of Marine Science. “We need to equip local government units (LGUs) and people’s organizations because they are on the frontlines,” he said in a Zoom interview. 

He said civic groups in coastal communities have “very organized” mechanisms. “They are in their communities and they have a sense of ownership of their communities. We need to invest more in our local government units and people’s organizations.”

“If we will equip them with proper training and capacity building, we would be able to deal better with environmental risks,” he added.

Mr. Saco said marine disaster preparation should consider the status of the Philippines’ scientific community, whose members are leaving the country for better opportunities and higher pay overseas.

Marine disasters are nothing new to the Philippines, which was also hit by an oil spill in 2006 after a motor tanker carrying more than two million liters of bunker fuel sank off the coast of Guimaras Island in central Philippines.

Ms. Azanza said the Philippines should work with Southeast Asian neighbors and look at existing treaties or agreements to address marine disasters. “The International Maritime Organization has policies concerning oil spill management, with focus on response and recovery mechanisms,” she said.

She said the recently approved United Nations agreement on the protection of the high seas could be used to develop specific policies on cooperative research and development, planning and response to major marine disasters such as oil spills.

“The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is now developing a regional road map for the blue economy, should consider these topics to have strategic regional cooperation on marine disaster management based on science, technology and innovation, considering prevention, mitigation and response schemes,” she added.

During his presidential campaign last year, Mr. Marcos promised to develop the maritime sector by making the Philippines a logistics hub and harnessing the country’s sea resources.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has said 80-90% of global trade is shipped by sea.

Experts said developing the maritime industry should be in line with the demands of a blue or ocean economy, which Mr. Marcos included in his economic agenda during his campaign.

The blue economy calls for the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem,” according to the World Bank.

“A modern local maritime industry should develop and implement a science and technology- based marine disaster management program that considers prevention, mitigation and recovery aspects,” Ms. Azanza said. “Good governance of institutions or agencies involved in the strategic program is a must.”