Bracing for El Nino

philrice el nino

Does the Aquino administration have the needed policy tools to intervene and protect sectors most vulnerable to El Niño?

By Arnold Padilla

IBON Features—El Niño is not expected to occur until late June or July, with its impact likely to be felt by the third quarter of the year. But this early Filipino farmers are already bearing the brunt of the dry spell. Households are facing rotating brownouts and water service interruptions as major dams begin to dry up.

Some experts, including the United Nations which issued a recent bulletin, warn that it could be a strong El Niño. Prolonged dry spells and stronger storms are expected to hit the country and are seen to worsen when El Niño peaks months from now. Notably, recent destructive tropical storms such as Ondoy and Pepeng in 2009 occurred during an El Niño year.

Now, is the Aquino administration prepared to mitigate the effects of the continued drought and devastating typhoons? Does it have the needed policy tools to intervene and protect the most vulnerable sectors?

How strong?

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said in a recent report that it is monitoring something in the Pacific that looks like 1997 before a big El Niño occurred. The 1997 El Niño was considered the strongest in 50 years of accurate data gathering.

In the Philippines, it reduced rainfall by half and agricultural production by almost eight percent. It affected 74,000 hectares of agricultural lands in 18 provinces. The area planted for major crops declined by more than 14% during the 1997 El Niño. Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS) data show that the volume of palay production fell by 24% and corn, 12%, in 1997-98.

The impact of the worst recorded El Niño was most felt in Mindanao. More than 74 people died and almost half a million agricultural families starved because of the drought. Shortage of potable water was also reported.

Local crop production, already hurt by structural backwardness, takes steep declines when El Niño hits. On the average, the volume of palay and corn production during El Niño years in the past two decades has fallen by more than three percent. Annual production of palay and corn has been very erratic.

Affected areas

While El Niño is expected to start by midyear, its early effects are already weighing down farm production. The Department of Agriculture (DA) said that Php823.29 million worth of crops have so far been lost due to the dry spell.

Most affected are corn farms, which already took a loss of Php583.6 million, equivalent to 45,729 metric tons. Losses have been reported as well for palay (Php221.28 million) and vegetable (Php18.41 million) farms. Almost 33,000 hectares of corn, palay and vegetable farms have already been affected. Cagayan Valley accounts for more than half of the total value of crop losses, based on the DA’s preliminary report.

Earlier, state-run weather forecaster Pag-asa said that El Niño would likely hit Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Ecija, Tarlac, Pangasinan, Camarines Sur, Iloilo, Negros Occidental, Bohol, Leyte and some parts of Mindanao. But other provinces can be affected as well. In Bulacan and Pampanga, for instance, the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) temporarily stopped water supply to some 27,000 hectares (has.) of farms due to the critical level of Angat Dam.

Angat Dam

If Angat Dam continues to deplete, Maynilad Water Services Inc. claimed that there could be tight water supply in Metro Manila starting August. The private water concessionaire warned that 60,000 households in its service area would suffer from low water pressure.

Angat Dam supplies the irrigation needs of Bulacan and Pampanga and 97% of Metro Manila’s water needs. The dam also has a hydroelectric power component, thus threatening as well the supply of electricity. Unfortunately, government no longer controls Angat Dam after being privatized and taken over by the Korea Water Resources Development Corp. and the San Miguel group.

In Mindanao, the Department of Energy (DOE) warned that the power crisis could further worsen because of El Niño. The hydropower-dependent region is already suffering rotating brownouts that last for as long as 16 hours in some areas due to lack of capacity to meet demand. Government could not produce more capacity since privatization under the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) prohibits it from building new power plants.

Government response

Malacañang has yet to issue a comprehensive and coordinated plan to address the looming El Niño, except to ask the public to conserve water. The Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) is also promoting water conservation tips instead of designing a clear contingency plan to ensure supply of potable water.

Some government agencies though have already announced their initiatives. The DA, for instance, said that an initial Php1.61 billion has been allotted to help affected farmers. A chunk of this is meant for stocking and distribution of farm inputs (Php729.9 million) and for construction, repair and rehabilitation of irrigation facilities (Php499.8 million). The rest will go to crop insurance, cloud seeding and others. But of the initial DA funds, only less than half (Php764.3 million) is available while the rest is still being requested from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

Another source of possible funding is the Grassroots Participatory Budgeting Process (GPBP). It is a program that allows city governments to access as much as Php50 million (for municipalities, Php15 million) from the national coffers for infrastructure projects to mitigate El Niño’s impact. However, only local government units that passed “standards of financial transparency and good governance” can access the GPBP.

Perennial crisis

Small and poor farmers are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of El Niño since they are already marginalized even when water supply is abundant. Because of privatization and lack of genuine agrarian reform, they suffer from perennial water “crisis” for use in their livelihood.

Take the case of the country’s irrigation system. As of 2013, only 1.68 million hectares out of 3.02 million hectares of irrigable area are irrigated. This leaves 1.34 million hectares or 44% of irrigable area relying on rains that exposes them to an episode of prolonged drought. These data were taken from the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS).

Of the total irrigated area, NIA-built irrigation system accounts for only 44% while those assisted through other government agencies comprise less than 10 percent. A significant portion of irrigation system is still provided through communal (34%) and private (12%) systems.

In the past 13 years, the country’s irrigated area has expanded by 317,141 hectares that “improved” irrigation from 44% of irrigable area in 2000 to 56% in 2013. But this is not because of significant government intervention. In fact, the annual expansion of communal and private irrigation systems since 2000 has outpaced the NIA system – 14% vs. 8 percent.

During the same period, irrigable area has even declined by 106,731 hectares mainly due to land use conversion, thus increasing the portion of irrigated area to irrigable area.

Prohibitive fees

Existing irrigation fees are also prohibitive. National irrigation systems, for instance, charge as high as eight cavans per hectare during the wet season and 12 cavans during the dry season. Due to high irrigation service fees being charged by private irrigation systems, cooperatives, and even the NIA, poor farmers could hardly afford to access existing irrigation services. This is a result of commercialization and privatization of irrigation where farmers are forced to shoulder the full cost of building and maintaining irrigation facilities.

NIA itself is earning an increasing amount of revenues from irrigation service fees (ISFs) charged to farmers. In 2012, it reported a net collection of Php1.35 billion in ISFs, which was 22% higher than its 2011 collection. NIA is also charging management fees, service fees, water delivery fees and others – all of which are shouldered by the farmers. Including these fees, NIA earned Php3.55 billion in 2012, almost 32% higher than 2011.

Household use

Prohibitive user fees also marginalize many poor households from having access to water for domestic use. Since MWSS was privatized in 1997, basic tariff in Metro Manila has increased five to ten-fold. Aside from their guaranteed profits, it has been exposed that Maynilad and Manila Water are also passing on to consumers the cost of their income tax, public relations and other expenses, explaining the exorbitant rates.

Worse, many households already suffer from lack of or inadequate water services even without El Niño. While Maynilad and Manila Water claim almost universal water supply in their service areas, most are actually not individual household connections. Unsafe and unreliable bulk water connections are still common, the private concessionaires’ refusal to divulge data on their extent notwithstanding.


If the Aquino administration’s “response” to super typhoon Yolanda is any indicator, it appears that the people should really brace for the most devastating effects of El Niño. Typhoon Yolanda illustrated the incapacity of government to deal with disasters – a result of both the character of the President as a leader and the existing government policies such as privatization that undermined relief and rehabilitation efforts.

El Niño will certainly again demonstrate how privatization has rendered government ineffective in the face of disasters. It could not design a comprehensive plan with government at the center precisely because it has given up its mandate to ensure water for the people especially amid a situation like El Niño. IBON Features

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