Farmers suffer El Niño’s wrath

 

First of three parts

THE violence that erupted during the dispersal of the protest rally blocking an important highway in Kidapawan City, North Cotabato, recently was a grim lesson in reality. When there’s prolonged drought and dry spells, communities that depend on agriculture go hungry.

For those in Metro Manila who have never lived in a farming community, this was just a barely understood and largely abstract concept, until the vivid photos and videos of the dispersal slammed the reality of the farmers’ lot right in front of the public’s consciousness.

At first, what happened in Kida-pawan was portrayed as a simple
local law-enforcement incident. The attempted message was that people ignored the law, prompting local
officials to send in the police.

It turned out that the matter was not that simple. The farmers agreed to join the rally because of one simple fact: their crops had failed due to lack of water.
They were hungry and desperate.

Upbeat tone

THE national government, through the Department of Agriculture (DA), did take steps to mitigate the expected
effects of the El Niño-spawned drought. The weather bureau also issued regular reports of the different provinces that suffered from below-normal rainfall.

However, the focus of the DA’s press releases on the drought tended to be upbeat, which had the effect of downplaying the real extent of the problem.

There was no sense of urgency. For example, the DA issued a press release on March 27, titled “Battling the Heat,” five days before violence erupted in Kidapawan City on April 1.

The press release said: “In spite of the strong El Niño that has been battering the entire nation since September last year, the Department of Agriculture [DA] is optimistic that only a small percentage in production and yield decrease will be felt.”

The DA’s press release was factual. However, it glossed over the drought’s effect on farmers. “For more than a year, February 2015 to March 2016, 313,356  hectares, from combined rice- and corn-production areas, were reportedly affected,” the press release stated. “This is 231,666 hectares less than the affected areas during the 2009 and 2010 dry spell.”

The statement continued the “minimal damage, according to agri-experts, may be attributed to the prompt distribution of support and assistance, as well as the dissemination of information to farmers.”

The DA also focused on its cloud- seeding efforts, describing it as its “most effective El Niño adoption strategies,” which “bring in positive results.”

“In Mindanao, particularly in Soccsksargen, Agriculture Secretary  Proceso J. Alcala called for additional hours of sorties, following a successful series of cloud seeding.”

“In other parts of the country, cloud-seeding operations have already taken off—resulting to scattered rain showers that provided a refreshing break for the arid farmlands,” the DA proudly stated in its press release.

Finally, a sense of urgency

AFTER scores were hurt in the violent dispersal in Kidapawan, the agriculture secretary said his agency will “fast-track monitoring to ensure the efficient delivery of appropriate services/interventions critical for the rehabilitation of affected areas.”

As proof that the agency did something to help farmers in drought-stricken areas, he said from April to July, the DA plans to distribute thousands of bags of seeds, rice and thousands of tons of fertilizer for distribution to affected farmers.

He added the “water-augmentation initiatives” will also be undertaken. This will consist of setting up “332 pump and engine sets, nine units of diversion dams, 1,816 units of pump irrigation for open sources and four units of drilling rigs.” Finally, a sense of urgency can be heard in the agriculture secretary’s tone when he used the word “critical.” Gone are the positive phrases “minimal damage” and “positive results.”

This latest effort of the DA will definitely help farmers recover from their plight.

However, he neglected to mention that this surge of assistance will come at a time when the adverse effects of the drought were expected to ease.

 

The statistics

THIS writer obtained data from the Rice and Corn Situation Outlook report, which was  released by the Philippine Statistics Authority in January.

The report presented the January-to-June 2016 palay and crop outlook with rainfall
data obtained from the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa).

The report said, “Rainfall outlook indicates that below normal to way below normal rainfall conditions will likely be experienced due to the ongoing El Niño affecting rainfall pattern that may lead to very dry conditions over large areas of the country.”

As early as January this year, this report foresaw that palay and corn production would be lower for the first half of the year due to the lack of rainfall.

“Based on standing crop, probable production in January to March 2016 will be 4.15 million metric tons [MMT] 4.98 percent
below the 4.37 MMT output in 2015,” the report said. “Harvest area may contract from 1.15 million hectares in 2015 to 1.10 million hectares in 2016.”

The figures clearly presented a decline in potential crop production. The statement that “harvest area may contract” was the only reference on how this would affect farming communities. Less arable land means fewer crops to harvest. And for farmers, that’s a definite loss of income.

But what happens if conditions are so dire, farming activities cannot commence? What happens to the people living in the affected farming communities?

 

Clear language

THE weather bureau regularly publishes reports explaining how the current prevailing weather will impact agricultural operations.

Thelma A. Cinco, head of the Impact Assessment and Application Section, Climatology and Agronometeorology Division of Pagasa, explained that these reports were designed to help farmers understand prevailing weather conditions and help them decide whether to plant crops.

Cinco explained that Pagasa had a specific meaning to the word “drought”.

“From December, January to February, we had three consecutive months of way below- normal rainfall condition,” Cinco said. “We consider that as drought in affected areas.”

“Way below-normal rainfall meant that there has been a greater than 60-percent reduction from the recorded average rainfall in an area,” she added.

“A dry spell meant that certain areas underwent three consecutive months of below-
normal rainfall condition,” she added. “Below- normal rainfall condition means rainfall in those areas have fallen at least 21 percent to as much as 60 percent from the average rainfall.”

She also explained that “dry condition” meant there was two consecutive months of below-normal rainfall for any given area.

Based on Pagasa’s climate report for January and February, five regions were adversely affected by the ongoing El Niño, namely, Region 9 (Zamboanga Peninsula), Region 10 (Northern Mindanao), Region 11 (Davao Region), Region 12 (Soccsksargen) and the ARMM (Autonomous Region in  Muslim Mindanao).

The report prepared by Cinco’s department also showed that one region, Region 13 (Caraga Region) in parched Mindanao escaped El Niño’s wrath.

 

The report

FOR Region 9, the report said “no farming activities may be undertaken in any part of the region because of very low rainfall received…. Zamboanga Peninsula continues to experience drought condition.” The report also revealed that farmers should expect below-normal yield in Region 10, because of “moisture stress experienced by crops during their  vegetative stage.”

For the Davao region, the report was blunt: “During the month, insufficient moisture supply hampered any farming activities. Continuous dry spell is being experienced across the region.”

The report for Region 12 was also dire: “Insufficient moisture persists across the region; any farming activities related to lowland palay and dry season corn may not be undertaken.”

The weather bureau’s analysis also brought bad news for the ARMM provinces: “The region has been experiencing drought condition, hence all farming activities are hampered. The rainfall received is still insufficient for any farming activities undertaken.”

The report stated clearly that the lack of water had made it nearly impossible for farmers in drought- affected areas in Mindanao to conduct their livelihood in  January and February.

A source who was privy to the writing of these reports told this writer that Pagasa’s report for March contained a similar analysis. The source explained the report for March would be released in a “few days.”

Pagasa used clear language to help the public, particularly farmers, understand how the ongoing El Niño was adversely affecting the agriculture and farming communities in specific areas.

The DA did acknowledge the weather bureau’s report by stating the existence of a “strong El Niño” in its March 27 press release that a “strong El Niño” in the country.

However, the DA use of the term “minimal effect” downplayed the situation in that May 27 press release, especially when compared with the weather bureau’s use of clear language.

According to the drought/dry spell outlook released by the weather bureau at the end of February, “31 percent of the country will likely experience drought.” This will cover 25 provinces. One province, Palawan, is in Luzon, while nine provinces are in the Visayas, namely, Antique, Capiz, Guimaras, Iloilo, Negros Oriental, Siquijor, Eastern Samar, Northern Samar and Western Samar.

The remaining 15 provinces are in Mindanao, namely, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga, Sibugay, Bukidnon, Lanao del Norte, Misamis Oriental, South Cotabato, North Cotabato, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat, Basilan, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur and Tawi. As announced by Alcala after the violence in Kidapawan, the agriculture department will enhance its cloud-seeding activities to combat the effects of the drought.

The question now is: How effective will it be? This writer spoke with Ma. Cecilia Monteverde, the weather bureau’s technical supervisor for the cloud-seeding project and Eng. Lorenzo A. Moron, the project’s coordination officer.

Their explanation, which will appear in the next installment of this story, will explain the science of cloud seeding and its actual effect, especially in face of the ongoing El Niño.

To be continued

Special to the BusinessMirror