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Realizing the benefits from P686-billion investments in irrigation and drainage (Part 1)

We fully support the initiative of the Duterte administration to relieve the farmers of the burden of paying irrigation fees but with a CAVEAT.

The farmers should not be charged for construction and major rehabilitation of irrigation systems. Nor should they pay for the operation and maintenance of upstream irrigation facilities like the major pumps/gates/locks and major canals.

But it is only fair and proper that the upkeep of the lateral and sublateral canals which directly convey water to their fields should be the responsibility of the water user themselves. The canals need to be periodically cleared of vegetation which obstruct the free flow of water. With cooperation and discipline among the water beneficiaries, this responsibility is something they can easily perform.

Experience with irrigation systems the world over have demonstrated that irrigation facilities cannot fully and effectively function without the cooperation of the water users themselves. Water conservation, equitable sharing and timely delivery are continuing concerns which the farmers are in a better position to resolve among themselves than government. Thus, the imperative to keep the farmers engaged in the operation and maintenance of the systems individually, and collectively through farmers associations.

Hence, our proposal for the farmers instead of paying the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), should CONTRIBUTE the equivalent amounts to their respective Irrigation Associations (IAs)/Cooperatives both for partial support for maintenance but even more importantly for the capital buildup of their associations.

The surplus from the water use contributions collected by the IAs/Cooperatives will be credited to individual members proportionate to their actual contributions. The farmers therefore do not pay government but pay themselves, as a form of forced savings.

How much have we invested in irrigation?

Moreover, we would like to believe that “free irrigation” is only the first of many complementary steps that the Duterte administration intend to pursue to help farmers and to make our agriculture more productive and more competitive. And far as irrigation is concerned the immediate challenge is how to make our substantial investments in irrigation pay more dividends.

How much have we really invested in irrigation during the last 50 years? So far, we have developed 1.73 million hectares of irrigated farm lands (NIA, 2016). This is only 57 percent of the total potentially irrigable area of 3.02 million hectares. We are therefore only a little past halfway towards realizing our full irrigation potential.

Between 1965 and 2012, NIA spent around R604 billion expressed in 2000 prices (Arlene Inocencio, 2016). From 2013 to 2015, the appropriations of NIA and the Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM) were R82 billion. These numbers although not strictly comparable, add up conservatively to a total capital investment of R686 billion during the last 50 years.

How efficient have we been in using these facilities?

The most direct and simplest answer is an agronomic measure called CROPPING INTENSITY, i.e. the number of harvests we obtain from the same piece of land every year. Without irrigation (rain-fed agriculture) we are assured of a least one crop a year during the wet season, or a cropping intensity of 1.00. With irrigation, the objective is to harvest at least a second crop during the dry season, or a cropping intensity of 2.00.

However, with early maturing varieties, no-tillage and use of seedlings partly raised in seedbeds, the cropping intensity could be raised to 3.00 to as much as 5.00 with irrigation.

To date, the reported cropping intensity of the national irrigation systems (NIS) under the supervision of NIA is 1.59. For the communal irrigation systems (CIS) which are under the supervision of local government units, the cropping intensity is very low at 1.29. The average for the two irrigation systems (NIS + CIS) which constitute the bulk of our installed capacity is 1.37.

With these cropping intensities and firmed-up service areas (FUSA) of 755,000 hectares and 616,000 hectares, for NIS and CIS, respectively we are able to harvest 2.00 million hectares of crops (mainly rice) out of potential harvestable area of 2.74 million hectares.

Therefore, with our current level of irrigation use efficiency, we “lose” each year 740,000 hectares worth of rice. At an average yield of five tons palay per hectare and a farm gate price of R14 per kilogram palay, this amounts to 3.7 million tons of palay worth R51.8 billion of unrealized productivity every year. Since our annual short fall is around two million tons of palay, a determined effort to improve management of our irrigation systems should help us attain self-sufficiency.

However if instead of palay, part of the “missing” hectares are planted to vegetables and other high value crops, the realized productivity in peso terms will be much more and the farmers will be better off.

Complementary measures to achieve higher irrigation use efficiency

Four key complementary measures are needed to achieve higher levels of irrigation use efficiency, namely: 1) further reinforcement of NIA’s role as lead institution in irrigation development; 2) convergence of efforts of stakeholders; 3) concrete lining of canals to minimize water seepage and to reduce maintenance costs, and; 4) conjunctive use of pumps, shallow tube wells and small farm ponds within NIS and CIS service areas as supplementary sources of water during the dry season and to facilitate multiple cropping.

To be continued… (Part II)

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Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP). For any feedback, email eqjavier@yahoo.com.