China has been accused of dumping large amounts of human waste in the highly-disputed South China Sea, causing destruction to coral reefs and marine life in the process.
A new analysis released last week reveals satellite images over the past five years that show human waste, sewage and wastewater accumulated in the Spratlys region where hundreds of Chinese fishing ships have been anchored.
According to Simularity, a geospatial intelligence company who released the analysis, the sewage is fuelling destructive algae which is destroying reef habitats while starving fish of oxygen.
Simularity CEO Liz Derr described the problem as a "catastrophe of epic proportions".
“When the ships don’t move, the poop piles up. The hundreds of ships that are anchored in the Spratlys are dumping raw sewage onto the reefs they are occupying," she said.
"We are close to the point of no return... it is so intense you can see it from space."
At least 236 ships were spotted in the atoll, internationally known as Union Banks, on June 17 alone, Ms Derr said at a Philippine online news forum on China’s actions in the South China Sea, which Beijing has claimed virtually in its entirety.
Simularity says satellite images show ships scattered near the reefs while others reveal the human waste dispersed nearby.
Other images of specific reefs in the region show an overgrowth of algae across five years.
Chinese officials did not immediately react to Derr’s assessment of the environmental damage, but have said in the past that they have taken steps to protect the fisheries stock and the environment in the South China Sea.
Aside from the Chinese, Vietnamese forces have also occupied some coral outcrops in Union Banks, which is also claimed by the Philippines, although it has no presence in the vast atoll.
China claims report is 'fake news'
The Chinese Embassy in Manila accused Simularity of "fake news" after an image used in the report of a ship dumping waste was discovered in a 2014 news report on similar destruction off the coast of the Far North Queensland city of Cairns.
"Fake news that smears and slanders China is always common! Fanning anti-China sentiments here for their own selfish interests!" it wrote on Facebook.
Simularity has since moved to clarify the image saying a news media outlet had wrongly claimed the image was in the South China Sea despite the report stating the image was an "unknown ship".
"We used it in our report to provide a context for what we were able to view from space. We never claimed it was a picture of a Chinese ship in the Spratlys," Simularity said in a statement.
The Philippines' defence minister on Tuesday ordered the military to investigate the claims made in the analysis.
"While we are confirming and verifying these wastes being dumped ... we consider such irresponsible acts, if true, to be gravely detrimental to the marine ecology in the area," Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement.
"Despite conflicting claims and interests by states in the South China Sea, all nations must be responsible stewards of our natural resources and environment."
South China Sea dispute intensifies
The South China Sea, including several clusters of islands, is contested by several Southeast Asian nations.
China has attempted to bolster its claim in recent years by creating multiple artificial islands in the South China Sea, angering other nations in the region as well as some Western nations.
China said on Wednesday that it had expressed strong opposition to what it called the US's wrong position, after the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington rejected "unlawful" maritime claims in the South China Sea.
"It is extremely irresponsible to deliberately provoke controversy over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea," Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a regular press briefing in Beijing.
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