• Climate change and water security

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    DR. WILLIAM DAR

    On June 15, I delivered a speech during the one-day “Conference on The Effects of Climate Change on Food and Water Sustainability: Challenges and Prospects” held at the Manila Elks Club in Makati City.
    I discussed why the Philippines is not “water secure” and how to address the issue of water availability for the agriculture sector in the face of climate change.

    The followers of my column can treat this as a third installment to my two-part column-series on a possible water crisis (‘Agriculture’s water problems can become too big’), but other issues are highlighted here to make aware to the public that the country is not yet “water secure.”

    Based on the National Water Security (NSW) Index by Economy of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) from its Asian Water Development Outlook 2016, the Philippines is ranked fifth among the seven Asean countries with an NSW score of 40.4. The highest score is 100. Singapore topped the rankings with 82.9 followed by Malaysia (73.4), Thailand (54.4) and Indonesia (49.8). Trailing the Philippines were Vietnam (40.2) and Cambodia (47.5).

    The overall ranking of Singapore in Asia is No. 3 and the Philippines No. 38. The ADB report gave the Philippines an NSW index of “2” along with Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. The highest score is “5” with Singapore getting “4” and Malaysia “3”.

    So what does this mean? Simple – the Philippines still has a lot to do when it comes to water security. And with the advent of climate change, we should not waste time undertaking programs and projects to make sure the country will not have a water crisis.

    Based on the World Risk Report, the country ranks third among countries worldwide at most risk to climate change with a score of 29.33 just behind very undeveloped nations like Vanuatu (36.28) and Tonga (29.33).
    Two events usually accompany the extreme weather changes from climate change: excess rainfall and storms; and drought. The Philippines actually gets both every year, exacerbated by El Nino and La Nina. The usual scenario is the country has so much rain that causes flooding of many farms during the wet season, and there is little water during the dry season.

    On the distaff, the country’s annual rainfall of 2,300-2,400 mm is a blessing if there were measures to harvest rainwater and mitigate the effects of flooding.

    In the Philippines, agriculture is the biggest user of water at 80 percent.

    So the challenge of food security is directly related to the challenge of water availability, which will be greatly affected by climate change. But climate change is not the only factor that is affecting agriculture with the other factors being: loss of biodiversity; population explosion; and even low crop yields which can cause the conversion of forest and grasslands into farms. Combine those factors and we can conclude that agriculture faces the “perfect storm.”

    I can also state that we can no longer look at food security, poverty, population growth, social justice and climate change as separate issues.

    Apparently, treating those issues separately has resulted, among others, to the increase in lands devoted to farming at the expense of forest cover. While there are quarters who contend that unabated logging is the prime culprit for forest loss cover, statistics show that there is also a correlation between increase in lands devoted to farming and loss of forest cover, according to data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Environmental Management Bureau, and the Department of Agriculture Climate Change Office.

    In the 1980s, the country had 7.4 million hectares of forest cover and 8.95 million hectares of farms. In the 1990s, forest cover went down to 6.2 million hectares while lands devoted to farming reached a high of 13.1 million hectares, and by the turn of the new millennium, forest cover was further reduced to 5.4 million hectares while agricultural lands was at 11.5 million hectares.

    We can draw a simple analysis from such figures that without adequate forest cover, there would not be enough water for farming, which somehow explains why lands devoted for agriculture dropped to 11.5 million hectares by the year 2000.

    I can also say the effects of climate change led to the reduction of agriculture lands, which I believe is less than 11 million hectares today.

    Devoting more lands for farming given the effects of climate change, however, is no longer viable given extreme weather events.

    One good measure to deal with the effects of climate change on agriculture is the “Hypothesis of Hope” conceptualized by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which I headed from 2000 to 2014.

    Under the Hypothesis of Hope, the Philippines is most likely under the scenario of “Low Input Practices + Current Climate” or “Improved Practices + Current Climate.” The best-case scenario under the Hypothesis of Hope is “Improved Practices + Improved Germplasm + Current Climate,” where farmers have improved their practices, and improved or high-yielding varieties that are drought and flood tolerant are widely used.

    So how can the Philippine agriculture sector attain “Improved Practices + Improved Germplasm + Current Climate”? That scenario actually addresses the issues of food security, poverty, social justice and climate change simultaneously.

    Poverty and social justice are addressed because farmers are empowered if they are trained continuously on how to improve their production practices, and if they consolidate their production. Taking it one step further, farmers who consolidate their production can organize themselves into cooperatives so they have better bargaining toward traders.

    Food security is addressed under the “Improved Practices + Improved Germplasm + Current Climate” because that scenario can deliver yield increases of up to 200 percent compared to the “Low Input Practices + Current Climate” or “Improved Practices + Current Climate” scenarios.

    And lastly, the best-case scenario under the Hypothesis of Hope also addresses climate change because improved farming practices utilizes the best seeds and inputs that will result in less water used in growing crops. So there will also be no need to convert forests into farmlands, and soil and water resources can be rejuvenated also using the Bhoochetana approach. Better soil health can result in less water use!

    As for the issues of population explosion, the issue should be addressed the soonest by the national government.

    The Hypothesis of Hope clearly shows that science and technology needs to be harnessed to make farms more productive, and to mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture. And with farms using less water, the Philippines can improve its natural water reserves.

    Based on research conducted by UPLB, four regions in the Philippines – Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon, Southern Luzon and the Bicol Region – will face a deficit in water supply from their localities by 2025 if nothing is done to address water issues. By 2025, the country’s water demand was placed at 85,401 millions cubic meter (MCM) and supply at 145,990 MCM for a surplus of 60,586 MCM.

    Cagayan Valley and Central Luzon are major producers of rice or corn, while parts of Southern Luzon are undergoing rapid urbanization.

    So the country really needs to get its act together to address the country’s water security. Let us hope viable solutions are conceptualized in the upcoming Water Summit this month.

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