For a few decades, China and other South Asian countries have been building artificial islands in the South China Sea. By building artificial islands, these countries are able to build military bases, which could help them project power across the region. In addition, by having an island, the country might discover natural resources like oil and gas that have previously not been explored. Therefore, in building these islands, the countries open their doors towards political concerns. More importantly, these artificial islands cause worries for the environment. Ecosystem disturbances and disrupting the migration corridor are just a few of such environmental consequences. Without viable solutions, these man-made islands could harm the environment for generations to come.
During the years 2013 and 2017, China, Vietnam, and Taiwan built various islands in the South China Sea. Using cutter suction dredging, hopper dredging, and airfield construction, China built 3,200 acres of land, Vietnam build 120 acres of new land, and Taiwan built eight acres of new land. The dredging is done by gathering and depositing sand on top of the coral reefs. The islands are built in the South China Sea, which is a highly biodiverse area. It is home to about 571 species of coral reef and a plethora of fish who made their home in the reef. Claiming the land became an area for political tension because neighbors of China and other countries building islands fear that China will define themselves as the “bully” of the region. However, a more concerning area stems from the speed of the activities from building the island, the South China Sea, and the biodiversity of the area.
Prior to building the artificial islands, the South China Sea’s coral reefs were already under heavy stress from bleaching, disease, and destructive fishing methods. According to Northam 2016, Chinese fishermen use propellers to harvest clams; however, in doing so, the fishermen are breaking up the coral so that the clams are easily extractable. When the South Asian countries started creating artificial reefs, they extracted sand and gravel from the lagoons and reef flats. In doing so, the dredgers stir up the sand and silt, which also damages the coral tissue. In addition, the sand and silt block the sunlight from important organisms that the reef cannot live without, such as reef-building corals. Due to the damage, the coral reefs might not recover for up to 10 to 15 years without any disturbance. If there is more disturbance, such as more dredging, the time frame of recovery for the coral reefs would increase. With such a rapid pace of building islands and occupying them, the life underneath will not recover at the same speed, which would cause a deficit in marine life in the South China Sea. Not only does it hurt the coral reefs, but also the creatures that live in and around the reef. According to John W. McManus, a professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami, the salt and silt either killed the fish or “expelled them from the reefs”. Such explosion from the reef means the fish are left to become prey to the bigger predators with no defense mechanism and, therefore, eliminate multiple smaller species of fish. Despite some fish being able to live in a damaged reef, the artificial land fills most hiding places. With such killing of the fish through the damaged coral reef or becoming prey due to lack of hiding, the biodiversity of the fish in the South China Sea would deplete, which would cause disruptions in other parts of the ocean.
Due to the damaged coral reefs, the migration patterns of the species around the reefs are also destroyed. In addition to the artificial islands’ housing military bases, Chinese fishermen boats also surround the islands in hopes of fishing in masses. There is a problem of overfishing near the artificial islands because around the reef, there are about 100-150 fishermen boats that travel around the reef compared to the .1 to .5 fishing boats near the Great Barrier Reef. According to Professor Eric Wolanski from James Cook University in Australia, the reefs damaged due to overfishing, and island building produced fewer fish and coral larvae for other areas. For example, Namyit Island has no new coral and fish larvae because all the sources are destroyed. If further downstream from where life around the artificial islands are getting ruined, soon there would be a ripple effect across different parts of the ocean. This would cause a disruption in other ecosystems all over the world, with some species ultimately becoming extinct. If the artificial islands continue to be built, more ecosystems have the potential of being destroyed.
While some irreversible damage has been done to the environment because of artificial islands, several steps can be taken to preserve the ecosystem from getting completely destroyed for future generations. One step could be to investigate whether the building of the islands was illegal through the committee. According to international law, island-building must be “preceded by an environmental impact assessment”. If found guilty, the committee should be firm and sentence a punishment in the form of a fine or work to restore the damage. During China’s position paper of December 2014, the country failed to assess the environmental damage and therefore failed to accept responsibility. Moreover, throughout building the islands, countries have failed to provide data on the effects the islands are having on the environment. South Asian countries should work together to provide more transparency to receive help from other countries to preserve the marine life ecosystem. Each country should promote the best practices in order to save the ecosystem for centuries to come.
While building artificial islands may benefit a country’s ability to use its natural resources or set up a military base, the negative impacts on the environment outweighs the benefits in the long term. If there is no action taken to save the South China Sea environment, soon there will be irreversible damage to life in the sea.