Facebook for the seas  | Malou Talosig-Bartolome

RAVENNA, Italy—Back in the olden days, ships waved semaphore flags to communicate to one another at a short distance.

Then, radio and signal lights were invented in the 20th century. Today, satellite services complement the VHF or UHF radio stations and transceivers, helping government maritime agencies track down ships in distress.

But what if there is a Facebook for the seas for maritime agencies in the region to communicate real time?

The European Union thought there can be such a platform and rolled out the so-called IORIS Maritime Coordination & Communications in Southeast Asia. Recently, it was offered to the Philippine maritime agencies.

What does it do? According to Marianne Péron-Doise, political officer of EU Critical Maritime Road for Indo-Pacific (Crimario) that launched the platform, IORIS is a secure web communications tool for maritime agencies like the navies, coast guards, customs, fisheries departments of coastal states to enhance their information exchange and incident management.

“To create a metaphor, it’s like establishing a WhatsApp group, or FB community. It’s flexible and easy to use. But we have a secure tool for communication,” Péron-Doise explained.

IORIS was initially offered to Seychelles, Madagascar, Kenya, Mauritius, Comoros and in western Indian Ocean starting 2015 since Crimario was initially set up there.

As of September 2021, IORIS is already in use in 11 countries in the Indo-Pacific region. The recent users of this platform are from Comoros, Djibouti, Jordan, the Philippines, Réunion (French island in the Indian Ocean) and Saudi Arabia.

Marianne Péron-Doise: “To create a metaphor, it’s like establishing a WhatsApp group, or FB community. It’s flexible and easy to use. But we have a secure tool for communication.”

Communication is key

THE Philippines, an archipelago of 7,100 islands and 18,000 kilometers of shoreline, learned the value of maritime communication the hard way. In 1987 the oil tanker M/T Vector carrying 8,000 barrels of highly flammable gasoline and kerosene rammed passenger vessel M/V Doña Paz, which was then carrying 4,386 people.

Except for 24 who survived, all passengers died in what was considered as one of the world’s worst peacetime maritime disasters dubbed as  “Asia’s Titanic.”

In the course of investigation, it was learned that the ship had no proper radio communications on board, which may have made it difficult for the ships to communicate.

Unfortunately, it was not the last maritime disaster in the Philippines. In 1988 the sister ship of Doña Paz—Doña Marilyn—also sank, killing 389 passengers while sailing from Manila to Tacloban City. In 1994 a ferry collided with Singaporean freighter Kota Suria and sank in Manila, killing 140 people. And in Batangas, the Princess of the Orient, carrying 388 passengers, capsized as it was sailing in the middle of a typhoon. Around 150 died as it took the rescuers 12 hours to reach the survivors adrift in the open sea in 1998.

That same year in 1998, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), with the help of the Japanese government, started modernizing the country’s maritime communication infrastructure.

In accordance with the Safety of Life at Sea (Solas) Convention, the Philippines required all ships to carry radio equipment that conforms to international standards.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) specifically required the Philippine ships to install the Global Maritime Distress and Safety Systems (GMDSS), a worldwide network of automated emergency communications for ships at sea.

Aside from preventing maritime disasters, the PCG, along with the Philippine Navy, are also very busy with protecting the Philippine territory and maritime jurisdiction in the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), particularly in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), where the Philippines has competing claims with China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia over the rocks, islands and other land features.

Aside from the EEZ, the Philippines also has a continental shelf all over the archipelago, which was further extended around 112 nautical miles more in the Philippine Rise (formerly known as Benham Rise) near the Pacific Ocean.

Add that to the increasing incidents of transnational crimes at sea—piracy and terrorism—especially in Sulu Sea. This is why the PCG is now trying to build 21 radar sites at ZamBaSulta—Zamboanga peninsula, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi—to increase the coastal monitoring system of all vessels passing through those areas and to enforce maritime laws.

There are also increasing incidents of illegal fishing and maritime pollution, as well as human and drug trafficking in the largely unmanned coastal areas and seas.

Aside from the PCG and the Navy, a host of government offices and departments are directly involved in the security and protection of the country’s maritime sector. They include the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina), the Philippine National Police Maritime Group, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), the Philippine Ports Authority, the Cebu Port Authority, the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, the National Telecommunications Commission and the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (Namria).

In other words, there is still much to be done in modernizing the Philippine maritime industry, including its communication infrastructure.

The EU thought they could pilot the IORIS project in Southeast Asia in the Philippines. Due to the vastness of the Philippine coastline, maritime operations and interagency collaboration at the national level alone is complicated.

Andrew Mallia, an independent maritime security consultant from Malta, likens interagency communication and coordination during maritime incidents to the story of blind men describing an elephant.

He explained: “A rescue coordination center, as the name suggests, thinks of things in terms of rescue. That’s his job—to prepare, operate and save lives at sea. Anther agency’s interest primarily is more significant—he had to think about the safety of life at sea, but he also had to think about issues like pollution, environmental protection, thinking about the place of refuge for the vessel. He had considerations that need different information sets.”

“Unless we have a system where we can exchange available information across our agencies, and make sure they have a common understanding, unfortunately, we will have an approach where each individual will be holding a different part of the elephant,” Mallia said during a virtual meeting moderated by Crimario for Southeast Asian participants in April.

Péron-Doise said IORIS could help the Philippines plan, manage and coordinate maritime operation centers of nations such as incidents with information sharing done in a secure and flexible environment.

Regional cooperation

THERE are 27 countries in the EU bloc, and they have their own share of peacetime maritime disasters—from the sinking of Princess Victoria in the North Channel in 1953, to the collision of Italian ferry Moby Princess with an anchored oil tanker in 1991, and the sinking of a 114,500-ton luxury cruise liner M/V Costa Concordia in 2012 in Italy.

For now, the EU is very much preoccupied with the war between Russia and Ukraine. Yet, the biggest war in Europe in World War II highlighted one need that is often taken for granted—the freedom of navigation.

As Europe was readying to open its borders from the worldwide lockdown due to the pandemic, commercial ships were stranded in the Black Sea.

Thus, it is not surprising that EU members’ economic interests are no longer confined within EU borders. They span around the world. EU is practically dependent on maritime trade—90 percent of its external trade and 40 percent of its internal trade are transported by sea.

During the EU Maritime Day here in Ravenna, Giovanni Cremonini, head of the maritime security sector of the EU External Action Service, said the bloc is looking at expanding its sphere of influence towards becoming a “global maritime actor.”

This is the reason the EU enlarged its scope of maritime security strategy towards the Indian Ocean and eastern and southern African regions through initiatives, including Crimario.

Unlike NATO, where most EU members are also members, Crimario is “a soft security initiative.”

“Crimario is not an EU security and defense tool but a development project which contributes to maritime security and safety to the Indo-Pacific region,” Péron-Doise said. “We are trying to interconnect the region through capacity-building approach.”

Thus, the IORIS platform is envisioned not just to help the capacity building of specific countries in the region but also to interconnect the countries within the region.

Péron-Doise acknowledged that bringing countries with overlapping sea territorial claims is challenging. But they believe that they can help address maritime problems, which are common problems among the countries as well.

“In many littoral or island states that are fighting for exclusive economic zones, there are also many criminal activities like piracy and illegal fishing,” Péron-Doise said.

Crimario hopes that managing incidents at sea and facilitating more free-flowing exchange of information within the region are tiny steps to build confidence and trust among competing states. But just like Facebook, one private message or group chats could make one closer to another and hopefully take action real-time. The sea of possibilities could be endless.

Image credits: www.crimario.eu/en/information-sharing/the-ioris-platform/, crimario.eu

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