IT certainly did seem ironic that on the same day (Monday afternoon) that global aid and development charity Oxfam was sharing a rather specific, dire warning that thanks to the El Niño, at least 85 percent of the Philippines will be in a drought condition by March, the first impact of the stronger-than-expected Typhoon Nona (Melor) was being felt in Samar and the Bicol Region. Nevertheless, credible forecasts over the past several days – the United Nations weather agency issued an updated warning two or three days before Oxfam – indicate the near-certainty that rain, from a typhoon or otherwise, is going to be a very rare commodity for the next few months.
We cannot help but conclude that the Aquino Administration, despite having had a lead time of nearly a year to prepare for it, has not developed an effective response to El Niño, which is being described as one of the strongest ever recorded. The climate phenomenon, which occurs at irregular intervals every several years, is actually a significant warming of ocean water in the Eastern Pacific, which alters weather patterns worldwide.
In our corner of the globe, the weather during an El Niño is hotter and drier, with fewer but generally stronger tropical storms. None of this is news; the El Niño effect has been understood and carefully studied and monitored for several decades, and while the effects may vary in intensity, once an El Niño condition is identified, there is no excuse for the authorities to be caught by surprise.
Yet that is exactly what seems to have happened. In an announcement Monday, the Department of Agriculture said it may have to import up to 900,000 metric tons of rice in the first half of 2016 to make up for the shortfall in domestic production expected from drought conditions. Some importation is inevitable; analysts have pointed out time and again that even under the best circumstances the dream the Aquino Administration once expressed of making “rice self-sufficiency” a national goal could not be achieved in less than 20 years or so, due to under-developed agricultural capacity and the peculiarities of various trade pacts the Philippines must honor.
Lack of foresight
Even so, virtually nothing has been done to try to reduce the import need due to El Niño. Work on irrigation projects that should have been accelerated over the past year has proceeded at a casual pace when it has proceeded at all, placing farmers who are still reliant on rainfall for irrigation in the position of facing certain disaster. To add insult to injury, many of those farmers are in areas that have suffered from a variety of natural disasters they have yet to recover from, thanks to the government’s inefficient (and in some cases, corrupted) relief and reconstruction plans.
Had the government been looking to the near future, some of the enormous import need could have eased, which would have had the beneficial related effect of improving at least some farmers’ chances of withstanding the coming drought. Forethought certainly would have saved a great deal of money as well. Even if the 900,000 metric ton import amount couldn’t be reduced, stretching that importation out over several months – beginning several months ago – would avoid the situation of having to buy the whole lot at the height of the El Niño-induced drought, when prices from the usual suppliers (Thailand and Vietnam) will be at a premium, as those countries will be suffering similar climate effects.
At this point, we can only hope that the effects of the weather will not be as bad as feared now, because our government has left the country in a very poor position to deal with them. That hope may be our best option is a discouraging thought, to say the least.