Agriculture’s water problems can become too big

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DR. WILLIAM DAR

First of two parts
The Philippines is actually blessed with rainfall that countries like India and those in Africa may envy: 2,300 millimeters per year. India only has 700 mm per year of rainfall in dryland areas. But as stated in my column last week (“PH needs more scientists, S&T-based approaches for farming”), India exports rice and wheat while the Philippines still has to import rice and many other commodities.

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During my stint as head of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) from 1999 to 2014, I witnessed how smallholder farmer communities in India adopt very simple water impounding technologies alongside Bhoochetana to rejuvenate soil health and increase yields by as much as 100 percent.
ICRISAT is largely credited for putting into place Bhoochetana, which is a set of soil and water management technologies for drylands in India including use of the most adapted crop varieties.

In the Philippines, a lot of water goes to waste simply because there is still no widespread adoption of technologies to save water during the rainy season for eventual use in the dry season. Compounding this problem is the development of climate smart technologies is rather slow, while available or matured technologies to deal with climate change are not reaching the tillers of the soil fast enough.

In the meantime, the problems related to water availability and scarcity can become too big soon.

Based on the research of InangLupa, which I founded and head, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of freshwater consumption in the Philippines. Households account for 12 percent and industry 8 percent.

Worldwide, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of freshwater consumption while household and industry split the remaining 30 percent.

So what must be done?

The lead government agency tasked to manage the country’s water resources for farming is the Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM), which is under the Department of Agriculture.

But the way I see it, however, the BSWM is underfunded when it comes to undertaking projects to help conserve water resources for farming, which leads me to discuss the first of my four recommendations to ensure water security and how to optimize the country’s water resources to sustain agricultural production.

My first recommendation is to harness the potential of rainwater harvesting, which falls on the shoulders of the BSWM that only has P2 billion this year to establish small water impounding areas (SWIPs) and small-scale irrigation systems, among others.

My proposal is to increase by 1,000 percent or ten times the annual funding of BWSM to put into place more rainwater harvesting technologies, to P20 billion a year. Besides establishing more SWIPs and small irrigation systems, BWSM can or take the lead in establishing secondary and tertiary tributaries and water catchment systems that will impound water that overflows from major dams, which are mostly located in Luzon.

Also, a hydro-geological profiling must be conducted to identify aquifers that are suited for rainwater storage, which should result in areas where tributaries and SWIPs should be built.

If more SWIPs, small irrigation systems, and other rainwater storage systems are established nationwide, more smallholder farmers can increase their productivity, particularly high value crops, because they would have water during the dry season. Also, flooding of farms will be greatly reduced.

Harnessing the potential of rainwater harvesting is actually a very good solution to address the impact of climate change, because it softens the impact of El Niño, super typhoons, destructive downstream flooding, and problems caused by excessive subsurface water extraction.

My second recommendation is to accelerate the coverage under the national irrigation system the 1.3 million hectares of land that have been identified as “irrigable.” At present, 1.7 million hectares of farmlands are covered by national irrigation systems.

The National Irrigation Administration (NIA), which should be returned to the fold of the Department of Agriculture, however, has programmed each year the coverage of additional 32,000 hectares of farmlands under the national irrigation system with an annual budget of P20 billion. That means it will take 40 years before the NIA completes the building irrigation systems in the 1.3 million hectares of irrigable land.

So my suggestion is for NIA to triple its effort so at least 96,000 hectares of the irrigable lands can be place under the national irrigation systems. That will also mean tripling the agency’s annual budget for that to P60 billion from P20 billion. And maybe if the NIA has more funds, it could even quadruple its efforts to 128,000 hectares with an annual budget of P80 billion so in 10 years, the 1.3 million hectares of irrigable lands will be covered by national irrigation systems.

My third recommendation is to undertake a massive reforestation program that is wider in coverage than the current National Greening Program (NGP) that covered 1.5 million hectares nationwide. The massive reforestation should cover the 18 major watersheds in the country and should include the establishment of agro-forestry projects that will benefit small stakeholders like farmers, indigenous peoples and upland communities.

Based on 2015 statistics, the Philippines has 15.805 million hectares of forestland but total forest cover as of 2010 was only 6.84 million hectares, which translates to a forest cover of only 23 percent. Some estimate the country’s forest cover today is 40 percent and the start of the NGP in 2011 may have helped.

Meanwhile, the agro-forestry projects should include the planting of high-value tree crops that can give small stakeholders a chance to earn more and be included in the high value-chain for agriculture, because they can be eventually tapped to supply raw materials by processors who have access to the export market.

My fourth recommendation is to increase research and development (R&D) to 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) for agriculture to include water research issues, as recommended by UNESCO. In 2013, the country’s spending for R&D was only 0.14 percent of GDP.

However, much of the spending and effort for R&D and even extension should be relative to climate change that will have a significant impact on local farm production in the next decades.

Data from the Manila Observatory in Quezon City showed that projected changes in rainfall by 2050 will affect a large portion of Central and Northern Luzon, and at least 80 percent of Mindanao, which has been always envisioned as the country’s food basket.

Whether climate change will result in more or less rainfall should prompt the country to invest more on R&D, because either way, much of the current agricultural technologies we have will no longer be sustainable or applicable with climactic changes in the next decades.

The worldwide impact of climate change on food production is also bleak, with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) saying in 2010 that by 2080, farm yield reductions will be up to 50 percent in African countries and up to 30 percent in Central and South Asia.

The Asian Development Bank and the International Food Policy Research Institute also project a 27-percent decrease in the production from irrigated rice lands in Asia by 2050.

You do not need an expert to state that water issues will have a great impact on food production and productivity in the next decades (although it was the experts who said that first decades ago).

So what needs to be done so water problems the agriculture sector faces does not become too big? Read the second part of this column-series.

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