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

‘There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why…

I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’ – Robert Kennedy

Reinforcing NIA’s role as lead institution in irrigation development

During last 50 years (1965-2015), we have invested roughly P686 billion in irrigation and drainage, expressed in 2000 prices. Updated to 2015 prices, the amount balloons to P1.06 trillion (Arlene Inocencio, 2016).

The more urgent challenge therefore is not so much whether farmers pay irrigation fees or not (although they are related) but how do we realize the full benefits from those investments.

The most direct and simplest way of assessing the efficiency with which we use irrigation systems is by an agronomic measure called CROPPING INTENSITY (C.I.) i.e. the number of harvests obtained on the same piece of land every year.

Without irrigation (rain-fed agriculture), with a regular crop during the wet season, cropping intensity is 1.00. With irrigation, the objective is to plant at least a second crop during the dry season, or a C.I. of 2.00. Better farmers regularly attain a C.I. of 3.00. In my farm in Bay, Laguna, I achieve a C.I. of  5.00 with three crops of hybrid sweet corn (75 days each) in rotation with two crops of pechay (30 days each).

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

Functions of NIA

NIA as the lead institution for irrigation development has two functions: Construction of irrigation systems and their operation and maintenance. Since its establishment in 1963, NIA has performed reasonably well in planning, designing and constructing our major irrigation systems which to date cover 1.37 million hectares. However, this task is only a little halfway done because we still have 1.29 million hectares of potentially irrigable areas to develop.

But NIA has not been as effective in its second major function of looking after the operation and maintenance of our irrigation systems. The cropping intensity of the NIS directly under NIA’s administration and control is only 1.59, compared with the objective of 2.00. Worse the CIS under the administrative supervision of local government units but for which NIA provides technical support is only 1.27.

 As a consequence of missing the objective of cropping intensity of 2.00, each year we “lose” 764,000 hectares of palay, equivalent to a productivity loss of 3.7 million tons of palay, worth P51.8 billion. The peso value of the lost productivity can be substantially larger if the palay is replaced with vegetables and other higher value crops. And the farmers will earn more.

Still and all, abolishing NIA, an idea floated by Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Ebasco is ill-advised. We will only be fooling ourselves. If we abolish NIA, we have to invent another agency with the same basic functions albeit with a different acronym.

How to strengthen NIA

The more realistic way forward is to reinforce NIA in its lead role in irrigation development, with particular emphasis on its operation and maintenance function.

There are a number of things that need to be done to help strengthen NIA:

With no revenues from irrigation service fees as announced by the President, the status of NIA as a government corporation (GOCC) becomes untenable. It might as well be reverted to the status of a regular agency receiving annual appropriations (subsidy) from Congress. We recommend that NIA be re-baptized as the Bureau of Irrigation and Drainage (BID), the latter to highlight the importance of drainage.

Irrigation and drainage are core activities in agriculture. The Secretary of Agriculture cannot fairly be held accountable for the performance of sector if he has no supervision and control over NIA. NIA should therefore be returned to the Department of Agriculture (DA).

The firmed-up service area (FUSA) of our major irrigation systems is 1.37 million hectares. The recommended operation and maintenance budget is P2,500 per hectare per year or P3.43 billion per year at 2000 prices. Adjusted to 2015 prices, the requirement is P5.93 billion. Therefore the P4.0-billion budget recommended for NIA operations by DA Secretary Manny Piñol is not sufficient but good enough to start with.

 NIA is severely understaffed. Because it is unable to collect much fees from farmers, NIA is able to fill only 60 percent of its approved plantilla positions. For the NIS, each staff has to supervise 424 hectares of irrigated land. For CIS staff, their service area is far larger at 948 hectares. Secretary Piñol must therefore persuade the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to create as soon as possible the plantilla positions NIA needs to adequately supervise the irrigation systems.

Most local government units (LGUs) do not have the technical expertise nor the funds to administer and supervise the communal irrigation systems (Rola and Elazegui; UPLB 2015). The support of LGUs for communal irrigation systems is erratic and depends much upon the idiosyncrasy of incumbent local government executives. For this reason many of the irrigators associations would rather have the CIS placed under the direct supervision of NIA.

The 3rd to 6th class municipalities would probably be better off if the administration and supervision, including and in particular, the sourcing of capital funds for construction and major rehabilitation were lodged with NIA. However, the richer municipalities and cities may prefer to hold on to the CIS in their jurisdictions. The option should be left to the discretion of the local governments.

Finally in the medium to the long term, we have no choice but to construct more dams (and protect watersheds) not only to supply the domestic water needs of our growing cities and industrial zones but, at the same time generate hydropower and irrigate more farms lands.

But for now, the higher priority is for rehabilitation, concrete lining of canals, and the proper operation and maintenance of existing irrigation systems rather than new construction. The bigger part of the P36.4 billion proposed for NIA under the 2017 budget should be re-aligned accordingly. The Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT) program of NIA should be reviewed to find out what more need to be done and allocated more resources.

With an actual cropping intensity 1.37, in effect we are realizing only about one-third of potential returns from our investments in irrigation.

Therefore, the immediate marching orders for NIA is to recover the “missing” 764,000 hectares of unplanted farmlands each year.

However, the burden cannot be borne by NIA alone. There ought to be a convergence of efforts of all stakeholders including the farmers themselves and their irrigators associations (IAs); the relevant LGUs; the private sector, rural financing institutions and non-government organizations (NGOs); the DA agencies, namely, the Philippine Rice Research Institute (Philrice), the Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM), Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) and Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech), and the state colleges and universities (SCUs).

To be continued . . . (Part III)

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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.