One of the few facts we’ve learned for certain from the international search and rescue mission for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is that the South China Sea is very, very polluted.
The disappearance is, above all else, a human tragedy for the families of the passengers and crew, and the state of the sea should in no way distract from the efforts to find them. Nonetheless, the ecological tragedy will have a profound impact on the South China Sea — and the more than 1 billion people living in its coastal areas — in coming decades.
On Saturday, hours after the first news of the plane’s disappearance, the Vietnamese navy reported finding 6 mile (9.7 kilometers) and 9 mile oil slicks (reports about the size vary), raising hopes. On Monday, lab tests revealed that they were diesel fuel characteristic of the ships that ply, and pollute, the South China Sea. In the days since, fishermen and rescue workers have found life rafts, life jackets, a jet’s door and plastic oil barrels each initially suspected as originating from Flight 370, vetted in the news media, and then — perhaps literally — tossed overboard as trash.
Where’s it all coming from? Data on the pollution in the South China Sea region is scarce, due to the large number of countries involved and the illicit nature of polluting. What data exists isn’t reassuring.
In 2012, the Chinese government reported that 72 Chinese rivers dumped 17 million tons of pollution into Chinese seas (counting the South China Sea, which China very much claims as its own), including 93,000 tons of oil. That may sound like a lot of oil, but a 2012 study by a consortium of Chinese and European researchers used satellite imagery to determine that land-based discharges and runoff accounted for only 36 percent of the oil in China’s seas.
At 45 percent, the bigger contribution was from transportation. This isn’t much of a surprise. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, roughly one-third of all seaborne oil and more than half of the global natural gas trade passed through the South China Sea. Those tankers weave among some of the heaviest container traffic in the world, and all of those ships carry oil that leaks by accident or on purpose, leaving miles-long slicks that can be seen on satellite images but are mostly ignored except when somebody — such as a search and rescue team — is looking for something.