Agriculture’s water problems can become too big



Second of two parts

In the first part of this column-series, I stated four recommendations to assure agriculture will have adequate water supply: Harness the potential of rainwater harvesting and build more small water irrigation systems; accelerate the coverage under the national irrigation system the 1.3 million hectares identified as “irrigable”; undertake a massive reforestation program that is wider in coverage; and increase research and development (R&D) to 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) for agriculture to include water research issues.

There are surely more solutions out there, some of which can be tied up with the four recommendations, like the following: Manage the use of water more efficiently; plant more high value crops needing less water; tap resources from blue and green water; develop climate smart commodities/technologies; and recycle wastewater.

These are all self-explanatory. So for the second part of this column-series, let me get views from some experts on how to avoid a water shortage in the future and to assure we have sustained water supply for our farms.

During the 66th anniversary celebration of the Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM) on June 5, I was requested by Representative Deogracias Victor “DV” Savellano of the First District of Ilocos Sur to deliver his keynote speech, which contained many good points on how to deal with a possible water crisis in the Philippines.

One good solution pointed out in Savellano’s speech is for the BSWM to expand its soil analysis activities nationwide, so farmers can know what is the “health status” of their farms so they will know what types of crops to plant, how to utilize water resources, and what type of steps to take to improve soil health.

Congressman Savellano knows what he is talking about because he visited India with my facilitation, where he personally learned and witnessed how marginal lands were transformed into productive lands using simple technologies in rainwater harvesting and the lessons in Bhoochetana that helped Karnataka meet its food production targets. Notably, Bhoochetana, a package of soil and water rejuvenation technologies, was one of the measures that the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) actively promoted during my leadership of the agency from 2000 to 2014.

Learning from his visit to India, Congressman Savellano also urged the BSWM to strengthen public-private community partnerships to expand the agency’s reach in all rural areas using the overarching framework of IDAIT or the “institutionalization of district-wide agro-industrialization, innovation and tourism,” which is a convergence platform that was presented and adopted by the National Convergence Initiative for Sustainable Rural Development.

According the Ilocos Sur congressman, the IDAIT platform can strengthen BSWM’s mandate and help it establish links with other stakeholders and institutional partners such are farming/agrarian communities through the Department of Agrarian Reform, upland communities through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the local government units for more support at the grassroots level.

By the way, IDAIT means “sewing” in Ilocano.

On March 31, I took part in the “2017 National Water Pre-Summit and Roadmap Preparation Towards a Comprehensive National Plan for Water Security in Agriculture” that was held at the Ateneo de Davao University in Davao City with overall coordination of Ernie Ordoñez.

The Agriculture Team from UPLB composed of Dr. Arnold R. Elepaño, Dr. Roger A. Luyun Jr. and Dr. Virgilio T. Villancio made a presentation titled “Impending Water Crisis in the Philippines: Implications and Potential Solutions in Agriculture” that detailed the water situation in the Philippines and proposed solutions to avoid a water crisis that will severely affect agriculture.

Based on their presentation, the Philippines can actually rejoice because it still has abundant water resources.
But the bad news is they cited “extreme climate events” as the top factor that can cause water scarcity in the Philippines in the future.

The other factors they cited were: decreasing watershed capacity to store water; decreasing water storage capacity of dams primarily from siltation; inadequate and poor irrigation infrastructure; and underutilization of groundwater.

When it comes to extreme climate events, the UPLB team cited the El Nino as the main culprit, with 15 such major events in the past 55 years. For decreasing watershed capacity to store water, they cited logging as one of the primary reasons for the reduction of forest cover, while kaingin (slash and burn) farming was blamed for the destruction of second growth forests. Siltation of dams, based on my own view, is usually caused by lack of forest cover that results in top soil getting washed down to drivers and water bodies during heavy rains.

As for irrigation, the UPLB team said the country’s national irrigation system operates at only 40-percent efficiency.

But what people found a bit surprising is how underutilized our groundwater resources are, because there are many anecdotes of artesian and open wells drying up. Groundwater is usually stored underground in the soil or in pores and crevices of rocks.

Citing BSWM data, the country’s total water resources are from surface water at 126,000 million cubic meters (MCM) and groundwater at 20,000 MCM. The UPLB team said that by 2025, total water demand for agriculture, household and industry would be 85,401 MCM and supply at 145,990, which means the country will, theoretically I should state, still have a surplus water supply of 60,589 MCM.

However, even if I can theoretically say that the Philippines will still have a surplus water supply of 60,589 MCM, this does not mean that the government, private sector and stakeholders should not take any action to improve the country’s water security for the future.

For its part, the UPLB team proposed projects to protect the Sierra Madre watersheds and the area itself, which actually feeds water to much of the dams in Luzon. Estimated project cost is P750 million. They also proposed an agro-forestry program at P2.25 billion, mapping of groundwater sources in major agricultural areas at a cost of P525 million, establishment of sustainable community-based irrigation systems at a cost of P3.35 billion, and development of water efficient technologies and management schemes at a cost of P2.55 billion.

Obviously, the solutions the UPLB team somehow jives with the four recommendations I detailed in the first part of this column-series and enumerated in the first paragraph of this installment.

This shows that there is actually no need to debate on what needs to be done before the country’s water problems become too big to solve soon. It may even boil down to the following: store rainwater, by increasing the absorptive capacity of watersheds through reforestation and building more small water storage (impounding) and catchment systems; expand both the small and national irrigation systems, and repair the existing ones; utilize water efficiently, including wastewater; and develop and plant other crops that promise more incomes for farmers but need less water to cultivate.

More importantly, taking the cue from IDAIT and the successful partnerships ICRISAT formed, it is completely impossible for one agency to address the country’s water security. There needs to be cooperation and collaboration!

So when the water summit convenes in Manila this month, I hope it won’t be difficult for those who will attend the event to formulate or conceptualize a program that will make the country more water secure in the future.

Anyway, who wants many Filipinos to go hungry decades from now because of water lack? Definitely not me!


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