Water, water everywhere (but little for irrigation)



    Part 1
    There are a few reasons why Vietnam’s agriculture sector should be envied, such as for its rice lands totaling 7.5 million hectares fully covered by irrigation. And another Southeast Asian neighbor of the Philippines, Thailand, boasts of an 80-percent irrigation coverage for its rice farms totaling 11 million hectares, which partly explains why it is the world’s biggest rice exporter.

    So when I learned that the Department of Agriculture through the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) would irrigate an additional 350,000 hectares of farmlands in the Philippines for the next five years, I felt kind of depressed. That may be even an understatement.

    I don’t know if this will make you more depressed—of the three million irrigable lands in the Philippines, about 1.73 million hectares are irrigated, for a coverage of approximately 57.33 percent. Of the 1.73 million hectares, at least 754,000 hectares are covered by national irrigation systems managed by the NIA. Communal irrigation systems cover approximately 615,000 hectares.

    I believe that to secure the country’s food needs, NIA’s target over the Duterte administration should be 1.3 million hectares or the balance of the three million irrigable lands that are not yet covered by any form of irrigation. Or the administration can set into place a 10-year program to irrigate an additional 130,000 hectares per year.

    While I understand the need to irrigate more rice and corn lands to help secure the country’s food needs, I strongly believe that it is high time government invest equally in national and communal irrigation systems for high-value agriculture. In many of my past columns, I have discussed many times why high-value agriculture can help reduce poverty in the countryside, because high-value farm products, whether in raw and processed form, have greater export potential compared to rice and corn.

    And looking at the case of Thailand and Vietnam when it comes to high-value farm export can make Filipino farmers green with envy, literally. Based on InangLupa’s research, Thailand’s top farm exports include the following: natural rubber ($6.0 billion); rice ($5.4 billion); prepared fish ($3.1 billion); sugar ($2.7 billion); prepared chicken ($2.2 billion); starch ($1.3 billion); prepared shrimp ($1.2 billion); animal feed ($1.2 billion); and food preparations ($1.2 billion). Vietnam also boasts of the following farm exports earning billions of dollars per year: coffee beans ($3.3 billion); rice ($2.9 billion); shrimps ($2.6 billion); fish fillet ($2.4 billion); cashew nuts ($2.0 billion); natural rubber ($1.7 billion); prepared shrimp ($1.6 billion); and pepper ($1.2 billion).
    The Philippines only has two agriculture products that generate $1 billion in export earnings: bananas and coconuts (primarily coconut oil).

    So is it no wonder that based on InangLupa’s research, Vietnam’s rural poverty incidence was 18.6 percent in 2014 while Thailand’s is 13.9 percent in 2013? In 2014, the Philippines’ rural poverty incidence was placed at 40 percent.

    But building more irrigation systems would be useless if the country’s 18 big or major watersheds including smaller watersheds are not rehabilitated and left unprotected. The rehabilitation and protection of all watersheds will support the country’s national irrigation systems to make sure these have adequate water supply.

    There was a time when countries with adequate forest cover hardly experienced flooding unless a freakish weather disturbance takes place. But with climate change, even countries with enough forest cover get inundated with massive floods that cause damage to property and loss of lives. Floodwaters that flow out to the seas also cause soil erosion that will make it harder for farmers to grow crops. And come summer time, water supply is short or non-existent.

    Agriculture is actually the biggest user of freshwater supply worldwide, according to research by InangLupa that I founded and currently head. Worldwide, farming uses 70 percent of freshwater with household or domestic accounting for 15 percent and industries the remaining 15 percent. In the Philippines, the use of surface water is about 88 percent for farming and 4 percent for industries. Domestic use accounts for 8 percent of freshwater utilization in the Philippines.

    When we say freshwater, we are not talking of water sourced from the sea or oceans, which is usually salty and cannot be used for farming and domestic purposes. Maybe certain industries can still use seawater like power plants for their cooling needs. So let us not harbor the illusion that our country being blessed with so much seas will mean that we will never run out of water for our farming and domestic needs.

    In my column last week (The impact of watershed projects), I emphasized in the last two paragraphs the need for government to build rainwater catchments (RWCs) in the secondary or tertiary tributaries along the country’s 18 big watersheds and other relevant areas. The RWCs can be water impounding ponds or small dams where water can be stored. The RWC that do not have porous linings at the bottom eventually recharge or refill the aquifers, which is actually impossible when strong rains dump a lot of water in an area in a span of 24 hours.

    RWCs are also like dams where water is stored and later released for farm, domestic and industrial use. But the construction of big dams requires huge amounts of budget. On the other hand, RWCs can be built with lesser budget in far-flung areas or even in upland and mountainous areas.

    The building of and designing of RWCs is not rocket science although they are part of a science-based approach to making agriculture more productive by assuring water would be available during the dry season and to help check soil erosion over the long term.

    But first things first—it would be highly impossible for the country to become competitive in farm exports and its food security goals would be compromised if the government does not invest to build more national and communal irrigation systems.

    The local government can also undertake the building of small- to medium-sized irrigation systems. Even private companies built irrigation systems covering about 187,000 hectares in the Philippines.

    Should we wait for the time when government realizes that irrigation systems are also very strategic infrastructure like railways, national roads and expressways, seaports and airports? Anyway, the NIA have required farmers earlier to pay irrigation fees so that means the agency has a projected return-on-investment for its national systems.

    But I still do not believe farmers should be given totally free irrigation services. More on that in the next part of this column-series.


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