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

Oil spill in Thailand

Coming hot on the heels of the spill in Thailand on July 27, in which 50,000 liters of black oil drenched the beaches of the tourist island Koh Samed, came news of a massive spill in Indonesia.

On July 31, an oil tanker carrying a reported seven million liters of diesel and gasoline crashed 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 Aug. 9, the Philippines awoke to the news of another disaster, with reports of up to half a million liters of diesel spilling into Manila Bay, affecting several coastal towns in the province of Cavite.  A state of calamity was declared in the town of Rosario after officials reported that the spill had damaged coral reefs and has driven local fishing boats out of the water amid serious contamination of fish catches.Diesel oil spill in Cavite, Philippines

The foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations went on a retreat in Hua Hin, Thailand, on Aug. 13-15 and the economic ministers will meet in Brunei on Aug. 20-24 to prepare the agenda for the next ASEAN Summit in October. It is imperative that the focus be on the issue of ocean pollution by dirty petrochemical fossil fuels.

As with their recent action on the “Haze Wave,” which saw much of the region affected by smog from forest fires, the ASEAN leadership must now cooperate to stop ocean pollution by dirty petrochemical fossil fuels.

Southeast Asia relies heavily on its oceans for food, tourism and livelihoods. The recent World Bank report “Turn Down the Heat” noted that in this region, there are 138 million people living on coasts and within 30 kilometers of a coral reef who are likely to suffer major social, economic, and nutritional impacts as a result of climate change.

Oil spill in Thailand

At the upcoming ASEAN Summit, our leaders will have their chance to take strong measures to protect the region’s oceans, not only by holding the polluting industries accountable but also by ensuring that our region is steered away from a development path that will see the inevitable degradation of our natural resources and livelihoods.

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

Our oceans are already under threat from destructive fishing, pollution, climate change, mostly caused by use of fossil fuels. The oceans have absorbed large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions and are rapidly becoming more acidic. This means that corals, 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 petrochemicals.

While ASEAN has paid a lot of attention to the Oil Spill Response Action Plan, it must be pointed out that damage to the oceans 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 an oil spill (as well as the methods used in the cleanup) continue to unfold. The impacts on marine life, human health and fishing communities will continue to be counted for generations to come.

Our region needs to set the global standard for marine protection, not just because it 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 emphasized 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 also because our people, our culture, and our entire future depend on healthy oceans.

Zelda Soriano is a lawyer and political advisor for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.