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Chinese dredging ships alarm Zambales residents

Dredging ships manned by Chinese nationals are moored off San Felipe town in Zambales province with residents complaining the noise they make is making it hard for them to sleep at night.

Posted on March 13, 2024

At least 14 dredging vessels with Chinese crew members have been seen operating in this coastal town since last week, causing alarm among residents here.

Edgar Mabuyo, 50, of Barangay Sindol, told the Inquirer on Sunday that the dredging activities started in October last year.

“There were only two or three vessels at that time but when January came, the operation became full blast, 24/7, until now. There were days when there were more like 20 [vessels],” he said.

Based on Administrative Order No. 13 of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the dredging project is part of the river restoration to rehabilitate the “heavily silted channels of the Bucao River in Botolan town, the Maloma [River] in San Felipe town and Sto. Tomas [River] traversing the towns of San Marcelino, San Narciso, and San Felipe” in Zambales province, mainly to prevent flooding.

The sand extracted from the area would be transported to the reclamation area in Pasay City and the airport in Bulacan, according to San Felipe Mayor Reinhard Jeresano.

He said the communities most impacted by the dredging activities being carried out by China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd. (CHEC) were Sitio Tektek in Barangay Sindol and Sitio Laoag in Barangay Maloma, both in San Felipe.

CHEC is the second largest dredging company worldwide, carrying out projects in Asia, including the Philippines. It is engaged in several infrastructure projects in the country, including the Manila Bay reclamation development project.

The Inquirer is still trying to reach CHEC representatives for comment.

Perennial flooding

In a phone interview, Jeresano said the town was suffering from perennial flooding as its major rivers, especially Sto. Tomas, remain heavily silted because of sand and lahar that accumulated after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991.

“The only solution to allow the sand to flow freely is to dredge through the mouth of the river,” he added.

Jeresano said an interagency committee composed of the DENR, Department of Public Works and Highways and the provincial government issued the necessary permits to allow the dredging operations.

“For me as mayor, what I am most concerned about is the flooding and its impact on us every rainy season, such as the damage to our farms,” he said.

But some residents in the coastal villages said there was no widespread flooding in the area.

According to Mabuyo, dredging, particularly if focused on the sea rather than the river, may not be an effective solution.

“This dredging is a nuisance. We would support this project if it’s a good one. But many of us, especially the elderly, have difficulty sleeping because of the noise of the ships,” he said.

“Our sea is being damaged; there is [soil] erosion and the sea is getting deeper, so the people don’t like dredging. We are not flooded here,” he stressed.

Jeresano, however, clarified that dredging vessels operate at sea to establish a channel for accessing the river mouth and also eliminate sandbars or siltation over time.

Some residents heavily dependent on fishing or tourism, on the other hand, were concerned about the impact of the dredging activities on their sources of livelihood.

“Fishing, swimming, and boating are now prohibited. My son used to fish, and we used to have a net right here to catch fish [within the municipal waters], and he could catch enough for our food. But now that there is nothing to catch, my son just looks for other livelihoods,” Mabuyo said.

He raised another issue—the decline of tourism in the area. “Previously, our resorts would attract numerous guests every Friday due to the beauty of our beach. But now there are none partly because swimming is prohibited and guests are also disturbed by the noise from the ships.”

According to Jeresano, fishing, swimming, and boating were prohibited in a 100-meter “dredging zone” at the mouth of the river for the safety of residents and visitors.

“Our coastline is at least seven kilometers long. So with respect to fishing, the sea is too big for them to go fishing. Imagine the small boat, next to the huge vessel, it was very dangerous back then,” he said.

As for complaints about fishing nets being damaged by dredging equipment, the mayor said that owners receive compensation.

Addressing the perceived effects of dredging activities on tourism, Jeresano said that there should be no resorts there in the first place since it is an accretion area.

He assured residents that every complaint or visible problem arising from the project was being addressed by the local government and immediately relayed to the provincial government, DENR and the dredging company.

Economic impact

San Felipe is the smallest town in the province and has the smallest budget allocation.

So for Jeresano, the dredging activities are a “win-win solution” to mitigate flooding in the area.

“This is an opportunity because, as far as I know, there is no cost to the government and the government will get a lot of income. As for us, we also expect the taxes to help. We don’t have big businesses or industries to help us out,” he said.

But residents in Sitio Tektek, Barangay Sindol have another complaint: plastic bottles, cigarette butts, milk boxes and other trash that litter the shoreline, allegedly from the Chinese crew members on board the dredging ships.

“Every 5 p.m., workers would [leave] their vessels and through small boats, go to the coastal community and proceed to the market or convenience store to get food or spend the night in nearby resorts and bars,” a resident said.

Jeresano could not immediately confirm if the Chinese crew had the necessary working permits.

According to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in Zambales, they are now looking into the issue but added that this was a matter for the Bureau of Immigration.

“China Harbour, however, said that they will also conduct an investigation, and if they find that their people have [committed] lapses, sanctions will be served, and if necessary, they will deport the people,” said Commodore Euphraim Jayson Diciano, acting PCG Zambales station commander.

For his part, Jeresano said the local government would continue to monitor the dredging activities and any problem arising from these would be referred directly to the interagency committee for proper action “or whatever is necessary to monitor the Chinese workers.”

“The PCG and interagency committee are keeping track of the vessels. But I will investigate the presence of the Chinese workers [in the town proper] since I see them of them. Nonetheless, we should inform the appropriate authorities to verify if they possess the necessary papers and documents permitting them to stay along our coastline,” he said.


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