Food security warnings over El Niño

Warnings have been raised over food security in the Philippines as the El Niño phenomenon wreaks havoc across vast agricultural areas, leaving staple crops such as rice dying in parched earth, officials say.

The cost of crop damage has topped US$239 million since the phenomenon started a heat wave across much of northern Luzon Island and parts of the central Visayas region in late December, said the Department of Agriculture in a recent report by its special task force on El Niño.

Some 14 provinces have been affected, with the brunt of the crisis borne by the agricultural provinces of Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya, Cagayan and Isabela, where irrigation has dried up.

The El Niño drought is compounding problems for an already bleak agricultural sector recovering from devastation wrought last year by two powerful storms, Ketsana and Parma, that pummelled Luzon, officials say.

To stave off a potential shortfall in rice supply, the agriculture department has said it may import some three million metric tonnes of rice this year.

Gary Olivar, spokesman for Philippines President Gloria Arroyo, confirmed that the government had entered into import contracts for rice as a "short-term alternative".

"There are no long-term food shortage effects from a short-term phenomenon like El Niño, but we are preparing for its more frequent recurrence due to global warming by expanding our water supply sources, exploring dry weather cultivation methods, as well as similar other policies," Olivar told IRIN.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A map of the Philippines showing the location of all the regions and provinces. The brunt of the crisis is in the northeast. (See larger version of map)

Range of crops affected

Pig and poultry farmers are also alarmed at the impact on corn crops, fearing skyrocketing prices of animal feeds, since corn is a major raw material.

According to official statistics, 54 percent of the total 487,389ha planted with rice, corn, tobacco and other high value commercial crops have been affected in the northern region.

Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya and Cagayan provinces are officially under a “state of calamity”, so they can now tap extra government funding.

The government is also racing against time to save remaining crops by bringing in additional irrigation pumps and seeding clouds in what has so far been a failed bid to induce rain. Teams of experts are also monitoring possible drought-triggered outbreaks of pests and diseases.

The World Food Programme (WFP) described the situation as "a slow onset emergency".

“We are particularly concerned for people still trying to recover from floods and storms that hit the country in September and October, that now, when they are trying to grow crops, they are again confronted with another natural disaster,” WFP country director Stephen Anderson told IRIN.

Long-term solutions needed

With much of the arable land relying on rain-fed irrigation systems, the situation has become dire, a coalition of rice farmers and traders is warning.

It noted that the bulk of rice production was expected in the last quarter of the year, but this could be weakened by the extended effects of El Niño.

The group is urging the government to help farmers withstand abnormal weather conditions threatening the country’s staple foods instead of “quick fix” solutions like importing rice.

"Being in the typhoon corridor of the Pacific, the Philippines is naturally vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather," said Jessica Reyes-Cantos, head of the Rice Watch and Action Network. "However, the government continues to resort to [the] quick fix solution of importing when struck by natural calamity."

Farmers are marginalized after years of neglect, while the government has failed to "devise strategic and effective measures" confronting the industry, such as climate change, she said.

She said only $212.7 million was needed to put in place working irrigation systems for some 164,000ha of rice fields in the country, thereby increasing yields. 

''What we need now is support from government, price subsidies and proper irrigation. Do we have to wait until people are dying of hunger before we get help?''

Ernesto Lactao, a 52-year-old father of two in Isabela province, said without proper irrigation systems, small farmers like him had to invest in pumps to draw out ground water, increasing capital outlays but not improving harvests.

“What we need now is support from government, price subsidies and proper irrigation," Lactao told IRIN. "Do we have to wait until people are dying of hunger before we get help?"

El Niño is a weather phenomenon in which warmer water from the western Pacific Ocean flows towards the east, disrupting atmospheric systems.

It creates a major shift in rainfall, bringing floods and landslides to arid countries and drought to areas in the western Pacific.