Nearly five months after Typhoon Santi raked Nueva Ecija with gale-force winds, Michael Santiago is still trying to put his life back together again.
The storm destroyed rice lands in the town of Cabiao, leaving farmers like Santiago with no crops to harvest.
The situation in Cabiao is a cruel irony in a province that has long been one of the country’s top rice producers.
To survive, Santiago, who is in his mid-30s, took on odd jobs as a carpenter and mason. In between, he and a few other farmers in Cabiao have turned to charcoal making, using the bark and branches of trees blown down by Santi.
“We sell charcoal for P300 a bag. Some are even sold at a cheaper price because of oversupply,” he told The Manila Times.
“There are still many mango and other trees waiting for us to turn into charcoal. In between harvests, selling charcoal indeed helps us to survive,” Santiago said.
Local officials like Cabiao Mayor Gloria Crespo and Vice Mayor Pompet Talens said farmers were looking forward to their pre-December harvests to survive the dry season. But Santi took that away from them.
“But we are going there [full recovery],” Crespo told The Times. “In terms of economy, there are still too many challenges although electricity and other infrastructure are almost fully restored.”
She said they learned a lot from the tragedy. “The first is that we should expect the worst and stand prepared for it. We cannot stop calamities but we can rebuild better and be more resilient.”
Talens said the most affected residents have adjusted by rebuilding their own homes using whatever materials are available.
Charcoal making has become an overnight industry, he added.
“They earn extra from it. What I observed is that while many practically wait for government help, many others have decided to do things on their own. Of course, there is still a lot to be done and it can’t be done overnight,” Talens said.
Electricity in Cabiao and the rest of the province is almost fully restored. “Maybe about 95 percent,” he said.
The Nueva Ecija Electric Cooperative has been replacing old electric posts with sturdier ones that can stand up to another strong typhoon.
“The second thing we learned is that we should make everything here stronger and able to withstand strong winds and floods. Even our crops should be made to withstand these challenges so that we have embarked on a program to diversify. This time, farmlands should not only be mainly for rice. During the wet season when rice is more prone to damage, we are thinking of planting more resilient crops such as vegetables,” Crespo said.
Santi’s winds may have been fierce, but it did not bring enough rains that could have helped farmers recover faster from the destruction.
Crespo said Cabiao’s location, at the southwestern tip of Nueva Ecija, makes it twice as vulnerable to weather fluctuations.
“Our town, being a catch basin, is flooded very easily during a heavy downpour. However, during the dry season, it is the last municipality to get water from existing dams due to the distance,” explained Crespo.
She said the Municipal Agriculture Office estimates that at least 38 hectares of rice farms are drying up from lack of irrigation. And that is in Cabiao alone.
“The Pantabangan and Penaranda dams are at their lowest levels. That is primarily because Santi left us with very little rain. It was mostly wind. The water levels are not enough to feed far towns and for us this is a new disaster,” Crespo said.
To survive either floods or drought, Cabiao officials are studying what crops are suitable for planting during the dry season and what could be planted when the rains come later in the year.
“We are looking at three croppings every year. Each harvest should not be dedicated to rice alone because the chances of palay being damaged by typhoons are high. This early, we are experimenting. We advise farmers to try other crops such as corn, nuts, chili and beans. These vegetables are more resilient,” Crespo said.
“We have started pilot-testing. There are rice farms now where we have planted mongo [mung beans]. If the results are promising, we hope to come up with a template or a pattern or formula which others may replicate in the future,” she said, adding, “Santi taught us to adjust and diversify.”
Crespo and Talens, like Michael Santiago, believe that there are more Santis blowing their way. They agree that the key to survival is preparation.
“Like our plan to replant thousands of mangoes and other trees, the Novo Ecijanos will rise up again . . . and again,” Crespo said.