Water, water everywhere (but little for irrigation)

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DR. WILLIAM DAR

Part 2
Not just because farmers are among the poorest of the poor means the government must resort to giving them dole outs for them to escape poverty. Dole outs actually make the recipient weak or lose their dignity, and that could be counterproductive over the long term. Also, programs and projects that are built on dole outs can easily drain government coffers.

So I do not believe in the proposal that farmers be given free irrigation services, but that does not mean government should not provide some form of monetary relief for them. Free irrigation can also be provided to farmers for a maximum of two years to help them escape poverty caused by extreme weather events and other factors that have badly affected their productivity.

One form of monetary relief that can be given to farmers is to reduce the amount for irrigation fees to 25
percent but the monies to be collected by the irrigators associations (IAs) must be used by them in partnership with National Irrigation Administration (NIA) to protect, rehabilitate and maintain the downstream or secondary and tertiary tributaries of irrigation systems. If there is no need to spend much for the upkeep or repair of irrigation systems, the money collected by the IAs can be used to build up their capital so they can have enough funds in case there is a need to undertake large-scale repairs.

The IAs must also maintain a cash reserve equivalent to 50 percent of collections that will be used only for large-scale repairs.


This approach will eventually give farmers a sense of ownership over the irrigation systems. Naturally, the IAs should also be given training by the Department of Agriculture, particularly the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), for farmers served by national irrigation systems, and the Bureau of Waters and Soils Management (BSWM) for communal systems.

Training and empowering IAs to protect, maintain and manage secondary and tertiary irrigation systems in true partnership with NIA and BSWM, will relieve the two agencies of the responsibility of making sure all irrigation systems are working. Over a large area being irrigated by a national system, an IA can even be a conglomeration of viable multi-purpose cooperatives that already developed their managerial and entrepreneurial capabilities.

In the case of small holder farmers needing temporary assistance from the government, giving them free irrigation is a viable option but this should be limited to only two years to help them rebound from the effects of the sudden weather changes that have badly affected their productivity.

This measure can be considered by the NIA in selected areas from this year to 2018.

During the period free irrigation is provided to farmers, the DA or NIA should take steps to strengthen the IA or train the organization to protect, maintain and manager the downstream systems. Then once the two-year period has lapsed, the farmers can start paying 25 percent of the usual irrigation fees to the IA for the organization’s capital build-up and for the protection, maintenance and operation of downstream irrigation systems.

From what I have observed from the field, most IAs really need training to manage and operate downstream irrigation systems, and the DA should craft a program to make these organizations empowered and skilled so they can also become stronger partners in helping secure the country’s food needs.

With IAs taking partnership responsibility with NIA for downstream systems, the national government can concentrate on its primary responsibility of building national and communal/small scale irrigation systems.

In my column last week that is the first part of the series on irrigation systems, I emphasized that the national government should start treating irrigation systems as strategic investments, or with the same importance given to railways, national roads and expressways, seaports and airports. How many billions or even trillions of pesos have government invested for such infrastructure?

I even find it disappointing that NIA plans to build irrigation systems to cover an additional 350,000 hectares of farmland until the end of the Duterte administration, because the minimum should be for 1.3 million hectares to cover the estimated 3 million irrigable lands in the country. Even the BSWM’s investment for small irrigation systems, like small water impounding projects (SWIPs) and rainwater catchments (RWCs), should be tripled or quadropled to cover more areas, particularly the hinterlands where extreme poverty is more pronounced.
Irrigation systems, whether they are national or communal, should also be built to last at least 50 years or two generations.

The Philippines is actually blessed with a high amount of rainfall, or 2,300 millimeters annually, which is three times that of India. But India emerged at the top rice exporter in 2015 with $6.4 billion, beating perennial leader Thailand that was ranked second with $4.5 billion and Vietnam at No. 5 with $1.6 billion.

A country that has over a billion people to feed emerging as the world’s top exporter of rice is no small feat.
Of course, it really helped that the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) that I headed for 15 years up to 2014 had its headquarters in India. Among the missions of ICRISAT is to find viable solutions to address the lack of water in farms in countries that have little rainfall and freshwater reserves.

Interventions to secure water resources is also another step in assuring there is enough water for farms, and I mentioned in my column last week that there is a need to protect and rehabilitate the country’s 18 large watershed areas and the hundreds of smaller ones. Watershed management should also be made “farm centric” with the involvement of the community.

Other policy directions for water security can be tackled in another column for this a very complex matter.

But for starters, I see no real coordinated effort among agencies that have mandates toward water conservation or usage even if there is a National Water Resources Board. Among the agencies that have mandates on water conservation and usage are: Department of Environment and Natural Resources based on Executive Order No. 192 series of 1987 has the mandate to manage, conserve and develop forestlands and watersheds, and maintain water quality; and the National Power Corporation and Philippine National Oil Company also have jurisdiction and management over watershed reserves. But the NIA does not have any mandate on watershed management that should be corrected because agriculture accounts for 88 percent of surface water utilization in the Philippines.

There are also efficient irrigation technologies for high-value crops and vegetables like drip irrigation and sprinklers that even small holder farmers or cooperatives can easily adopt. Such technologies are readily available abroad or our very own scientists can develop local versions. In Africa, zai pits were among the solutions pushed by ICRISAT. Zai pits are small holes where animal manure and a small amount of water are deposited and eventually planted into. Farms in Africa that used zai pits got yield increases of 10 to 100 percent.

And lastly, the issue of water harvesting has not been addressed at the national level which is the reason I see the need for a coordinating agency for that.

It looks like I will have to discuss more about irrigation and water harvesting technologies in my next columns.

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