‘Because we can’t …’
The April 10 editorial of a daily, headed “Because they can,” ended with the line, “Poachers intrude into our waters because they can—and we can’t stop them.” The editorial also said, “Philippine authorities, for their part, should get serious about improving the country’s maritime patrol capability …”
Ships and boats leave ports overloaded. Local smaller ferry boats defy instructions to stay in port given rough seas. Accidents happen. Scores die. Along with operators and port authorities, the Coast Guard gets blamed for the incidents.
At the moment, neither our navy nor our coast guard, and not our air force, have the ability and the capacity to maintain constant surveillance and guard our seas and skies. They do not have the ships and aircraft to interdict any would-be interloper, civilian or military.
Our Philippine Coast Guard has five big and demanding functions related to its mission of “promoting safety of life and property at sea; safeguard the marine environment and its resources; enforce all applicable laws and undertake other activities in support of the Department of Transportation and Communications in the enhancement of national security and stability.”
These five functions are maritime operations; maritime safety administration; maritime search and rescue; maritime environmental protection; and maritime law enforcement. Under each of these five major functions are a number of specific tasks.
Under maritime safety, for example, the tasks are vessel safety inspections; mandatory pre-departure inspections; prevention of excess passengers; inspection, maintenance and repairs of light stations; and maintenance and repair of buoys and beacons.
Maritime environment protection calls for the inspection of polluting equipment; vessel inspections; Marpol (marine pollution) patrol; coastline inspections; and supervision of POL distribution. For maritime security, there are three tasks—patrol, surveillance and inspection.
To do all of its work, our Coast Guard has 61 vessels which include four 56-meter Search and Rescue Vessels (SARV), four 35-meter SARVs; four buoy tenders; 1 gunboat; 11 tugboat; 35 small craft; and 14 BFAR MCS vessels. These are supported by three BN Islander planes and two helicopters. All these, and some 6,000 personnel, are what the Coast Guard has to watch and guard 36,892 kilometers of coastline (almost twice that of the United States) and thousands of square nautical miles of coastal and inter-island waters. Our gunboat cannot credibly interdict civilian ships like the Chinese “fishing” vessels (or any foreign fishing vessel) that seem to regularly poach in our waters.
Add to these the many ports and harbors in the country servicing well over 100,000 civilian vessels of various categories —passenger, cargo, fishing and other vessels. Given the many islands and reefs that we have within our geography, I am sure we have many lighthouses and hundreds of buoys and beacons that need regular maintenance.
Considering that we are a tropical archipelago of 7,100 islands and over a hundred major reef formations and estuarine areas (which make the Philippines a biodiversity “hotspot”), we have rich fishing grounds and rich marine resources, including some of the most attractive corals and reef life in the world. We are considered one of the best spots for marine sports diving. Fisher folk from other countries with large and more modern vessels will be tempted to try their luck and poach on our seas. The market for our live corals and marine reef life is very big all around Asia and for export to the US and Europe. We have a vast surface area of sea even just within the 12-mile limits.
With all the functions given our Coast Guard, and the resources they have to do all these within the geographic space wherein they have to perform all these tasks, it is obvious that they are dismally under equipped. However, much our Coast Guard personnel wish to do an effective job efficiently, and I am convinced they do, they are equipped and funded to do neither. The intrusion of a Chinese “fishing” vessel well into Philippine territory demonstrates this dramatically.
Why invest in our Coast Guard?
Our Coast Guard, like our Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Philippine National Police (PNP), Corrections and Fire Bureaus, properly equipped and supported, perform work that help ensure our security and safety, help preserve our national patrimony, and so enhance the quality of our individual and collective lives.
We can make an analogy between these agencies and effective pre-need insurance. We willingly plan for and buy insurance for some foreseen (education, health, possible damage to properties), with sometimes complicating and unpleasant, even life threatening turns of events. We know that not only are many of these events possible, many are also likely to be highly probable, and so we wish to have contingent resources with which to help address these potential problems if and when they arise.
The AFP, PNP, Coast Guard, Corrections and Fire bureaus serve similar purposes. In the case of PNP, the effects of good policing are almost always immediately felt in our daily lives. So is effective and efficient Coast Guard work.
We need to invest more in our Coast Guard, far more than we need to provide our legislators with pork barrel funds no small portion of which they spend for less than nationally useful projects or even for unaccounted-for projects.
Our Coast Guard need, even factoring in collaborative work with better equipped air and naval forces, better radar and radio equipped Philippine Ports Authority and PNP, better radar to monitor our seas; more boats and aircraft appropriate to do the work of monitoring and guarding our seas daily and interdict wrongdoers, local and foreign, effectively.
We need them to inspect our ships and boats for sea worthiness. We need them to ensure the reduction of pollutants in our waters. We need them to effectively police the right loading of these bottoms so that the accidents associated with overloading do not happen. We need them appropriately equipped to stop hard-headed boat operators from risking rough seas. We need them, together with our Air Force and Navy, to stop those foreign boats from further stealing and destroying our resources and our children’s future.
This we can do. This we must do.
(This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is Vice Chair of the MAP National Security Committee and Professor at the Asian Institute of Management. Feedback at [email protected] For previous articles, please visit <map.org.ph>)
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