It’s been a bad few weeks for the seas of Southeast Asia, with three separate petro-chemical spills polluting our waters, endangering biodiversity and livelihoods.

Hot on the heels of the spill in Thailand on July 27 in which 50,000 litres of oil drenched the beaches of tourist island Koh Samet, came news of a massive spill in Indonesia. On July 31 an oil tanker carrying a reported 7 million litres of diesel and gasoline ran aground at the Indonesian island of Ternate in the Coral Triangle, an area that covers six Asia-Pacific nations and is a top priority for marine conservation.

On the August 9, the Philippines awoke to the news of another disaster, with reports of up to half a million litres of diesel spilling into Manila Bay, affecting several coastal towns in Cavite province. A state of emergency has been declared in one town after officials reported the spill had damaged coral reefs and has driven local fishing boats out of the water amid serious contamination of fish catches.

With the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Hua Hin this week and the economic ministers in Brunei later this month (August 20-24) to prepare the agenda for the next ASEAN Summit, it is imperative they focus on the issue of pollution.

As with their recent action on the haze that saw much of the region affected by smog from forest fires, the ASEAN leaders must now cooperate to stop marine pollution.

Southeast Asia relies heavily on its seas for food, tourism and livelihoods. A recent World Bank report, “Turn Down the Heat”, notes that in the region 138 million people live on coasts, who are likely to suffer major social, economic and nutritional effects as a result of climate change.

At the upcoming ASEAN Summit, leaders have a chance to take strong measures to protect the region’s seas, not only by holding polluting industries accountable but by steering away from a development path that sees the inevitable degradation of natural resources and livelihoods.

These three oil spills demonstrate that the transportation of fossil fuels is a high-risk activity, posing enormous dangers not just to the environment but to communities and their way of life.

Our seas are already under threat from destructive fishing, and climate change, mostly caused by use of fossil fuels. The oceans have absorbed large amounts of CO2 and are rapidly becoming more acidic. This means coral, shellfish, squid and many kinds of plankton are at risk. The increase in extreme weather events such as hurricanes and typhoons has often seen entire coral reef systems wiped out in one storm. Our oceans are already fragile – the last thing they need is repeated pollution by petro-chemicals.

While ASEAN has paid a lot of attention to the Oil Spill Response Action Plan, it must be pointed out that damage to the seas may appear to be “cleaned up”, but an oil spill can never be undone. As we have seen in the Gulf of Mexico, the long-term effects of a spill (as well as methods used in the clean-up) continue to unfold. The effects on marine life, human health and fishing communities will be counted for generations to come.

Our region needs to set the global standard for marine protection, not just because is home to the Coral Triangle, an area of such incredible biodiversity that it has been dubbed the “Amazon of the Seas”.

The World Bank report emphasised that the “degradation and loss of coral reefs will diminish tourism, reduce fish stocks and leave coastal communities and cities more vulnerable to storms.”

Asean needs to take the lead in marine protection and conservation, not just for the sake of the environment but because our people, our cultures and our entire future depends on healthy oceans. –ZELDA SORIANO, SPECIAL TO THE NATION

Zelda Soriano is policy adviser, Greenpeace Southeast Asia. Email: zelda.soriano|@greenpeace.org.