Months before the pandemic struck in China last year, the Philippines has already been grappling with a weak El Niño, which started in the last quarter of 2018. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) declared the presence of a weak El Niño in the country after its climate monitoring and analyses indicated the unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific. The weather phenomenon, which causes below normal rainfall conditions in different parts of the country, ended in August 2019.
The El Niño episode last year was a major factor behind the farm sector’s declining output (See, “El Niño slashes farm output in January to June,” in the BusinessMirror, August 8, 2019). Increases in output posted by the livestock, poultry, and fisheries subsectors were not enough to offset the drop in the production of crops, particularly rice, which requires huge amounts of water. The dry spell caused farm output to contract by 0.24 percent and farmers to lose billions of pesos (See “Farmers, fisherfolk bear P4.35-B loss from El Niño,” in the BusinessMirror, March 31, 2019).
Even before the country could fully recover from the devastation wrought by the weak El Niño last year, another weather event is threatening to disrupt farm output this year. In an advisory dated October 2, Pagasa announced the onset of a weak to moderate La Niña, which will likely persist until the first quarter of 2021. The weather bureau warned that La Niña may cause above normal rainfall conditions across most areas of the country during the last quarter of the year and in the early months of 2021.
A La Niña episode, particularly if it will only cause a slight increase in rainfall, is beneficial for water-loving crops like rice. However, the weather event has the potential to cause heavy rainfall, which is bad news for crops like sugar (See, “Gain report: La Niña threat to PHL raw sugar production,” in the BusinessMirror, October 5, 2020). Floods caused by heavy rain can also disrupt farm production, harvest, and destroy standing crops.
During the last significant La Niña event in 2011, world food prices rose sharply with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture World Food Price Index surging to a record in February 2011 (See, “La Niña may disrupt global food supply, send prices higher,” in the BusinessMirror, September 13, 2020). In the case of the Philippines, the timing of La Niña is a cause for concern as it coincided with the planting of rice in areas considered as top producers of the staple. Farmers in the northern part of the Philippines usually start planting rice in November and this will be harvested starting March the following year.
The government is no stranger to weather phenomena like La Niña, having been exposed to these kinds of events in recent years. That’s why there are programs in place to mitigate La Niña’s ill effects on the farm sector. While there is nothing we can do about the volume of rainfall that we will experience in the coming months, the government has the means to help our planters. Timely and targeted interventions will ensure that we will survive La Niña and Covid-19.