A weather phenomenon that means “little boy” in Spanish is threatening to upend the country’s rice sector. State weather bureau Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) warned that El Niño could develop this year and affect the country in the second half of 2023. This means that certain areas would see below-normal rainfall in July to December, when rice farmers are expected to harvest their main crop.
Pagasa, the agency attached to the Department of Science and Technology, said in a bulletin it issued last week that a majority of climate models indicate that El Niño may develop this year. Areas that would be affected by El Niño would experience dry spells and droughts, which is bad news for a water-loving crop like rice. Rainfed farms, or those that rely on rainfall for irrigation, would certainly suffer the most.
In a report published by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) in 2021, rainfed rice farms accounted for nearly a quarter of palay production in 2020. Of the 19.32 million metric tons of palay produced by the country in 2020, more than 4.5 MMT came from rainfed farms. The top three regions in terms of rainfed palay production in 2020 were Region 6 (Western Visayas), Region 1 (Ilocos Region), and Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
A large chunk of domestic rice or more than 75 percent produced in 2020 came from irrigated farms. However, below-normal rainfall could reduce irrigation water supply and also affect output in these areas. Farms in Bulacan and Pampanga that rely on Angat Dam, for example, would stop getting their share for irrigation if the dam’s water supply falls to a critical level.
In the past 25 years, the Philippines witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of climate change on agricultural production. It was in 1998 when the country was forced to import more than 2 MMT of rice to plug the shortfall created by El Niño during the 1997-1998 planting season. According to a Reuters report published in 2015, the El Niño droughts of 1998 wiped nearly $5 billion worth of farm produce and caused the Philippine farm sector to contract by 6.4 percent.
Philippine farmers again witnessed an El Niño dry spell in 2010 and its damage to the agriculture sector was pegged at P10 billion. The “little boy” reappeared in the Philippines in 2016 and 2019 and caused losses amounting to billions of pesos (See, “El Niño farm damage doubles to P2.68 billion,” in the BusinessMirror, March 28, 2019).
While it is lamentable that the Philippines has to bear the brunt of climate events like El Niño, these episodes have taught policymakers valuable lessons that would allow them to prepare farmers for its impact. The farm sector needs long term solutions, not just short-term measures. It would do well for policymakers to formulate strategies that would enable the Philippines to reduce its reliance on food imports whenever it is hit by shortages caused by natural disasters. The state must always keep in mind that climate change is affecting all nations, including those that supply food to the Philippines.