Every two to five years, the story line is a familiar one – the Philippine weather bureau announces the onset of a dry spell, and the agriculture department counts the losses to crops as the days and weeks pass.
A seeming helplessness, and all that can be done is to pray for rain or wait for the El Nino weather phenomenon to end.
Last week, the country’s Department of Agriculture reported that damage to rice and corn farms alone due to the El Nino dry spell had reached 5.05 billion peso (nearly $97 million).
Its latest agricultural damage bulletin indicated that the drought has affected 164,672 farmers and 177,743ha of land.
The regions reeling from the drought practically cover the entire country, from the Cordillera Administrative Region and Ilocos in the north, down to Central Luzon and Bicol and going all the way south to Western and Eastern Visayas to Davao.
While the direct impact of El Nino is drought, it has other equally damaging effects – unemployment especially in the farm sector, food shortages because crop production is affected, and rising prices.
The state planning agency National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) has warned that a prolonged dry spell due to El Nino could jack up food prices even in Metro Manila, which gets its food supply from the provinces.
Citing the latest report of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa), Neda noted that mild to moderate El Nino conditions were forecast to occur from March up to October, and would weaken only in the last three months of the year.
The government can only adopt mitigating measures to alleviate the impact of the dry spell.
Last week, Neda announced the reactivation of the interagency El Nino Task Force (ENTF), which it heads, to ensure there are enough interventions to cushion the adverse effects of the drought.
The ENTF will also revisit the 2015 Roadmap for Addressing the Impacts of El Nino (RAIN), which aims to lessen the catastrophic effect of El Nino on food and energy security, health and safety. It will be expanded to include water security among the areas of concern.
That roadmap helped the government succeed in mitigating the impact of El Nino in 2016, particularly in ensuring sufficiency in the supply of food and keeping food prices stable.
This was through production support such as irrigation and distribution of seeds in non-vulnerable and mildly affected provinces, timely importations to augment diminishing supply, and price controls in areas that declared a state of calamity.
Other efforts included programmes such as cash-for-work and emergency employment for the affected farmers.
The government also hired more contractual workers from the affected areas for its intervention measures.
Neda admitted then, however, that gaps remained in implementing RAIN, especially in empowering local government units (LGUs) to reach areas suffering the brunt of El Nino.
It cited reports of people who still suffered hunger due to the drought despite the rollout of government interventions to address the problems spawned by the calamity.
“While the supply of food and production and other types of support such as distribution of food packs seem enough, the challenge is in making the distribution system much more efficient so that these actually reach the affected families in a timely fashion. We need to consider that some of the services are devolved to LGUs and so we need to strengthen coordination with LGUs,” Neda pointed out.
Indeed, closer coordination with LGUs is crucial, especially in terms of identifying the areas that need more assistance.
But, with the upcoming elections next month, the public should be wary of politicians seeking local government posts who may be tempted to use these national government-initiated measures to win votes in their localities, exploiting the suffering of their poorer constituents to win loyalty and consequently their votes.
The calamity is real and requires remedies beyond political palliatives.
El Nino’s consequences are devastating enough without being compounded by the callousness and opportunism of those in a position to help its victims. PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK