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Realizing the benefits from P686-B investments in irrigation and drainage (Part 3)

Convergence of Efforts of Stakeholders

Among the infrastructures required for a productive and competitive agriculture sector, the most capital intensive are investments in irrigation and drainage systems. Dependable supply and control of water are vital for three reasons: 1) to maximize crop yields, 2) to avoid losses from drought and floods, and 3) to effectively multiply available arable land by relay, continuous cropping.

For the last 50 years, we have developed 1.73 million hectares of irrigated farms with a capital value of, conservatively, P686 billion in 2000 prices. However, the realized irrigation use efficiency is only 137 percent versus the objective of at least 200 percent. We are therefore realizing only about a third of the potential benefits from our investments.

Four key 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 stakeholders, 3) concrete lining of canals to minimize water seepage losses and reduce maintenance costs, and 4) conjunctive use of pumps, shallow tube wells and small farm ponds within national irrigation systems (NIS) and communal irrigation systems (CIS) service areas as supplementary sources of water during the dry season and to facilitate multiple cropping.

The previous column dwelt on how to further reinforce the role of NIA as the lead agency responsible for irrigation development. We are only halfway through in developing our 3.02 million hectares of potentially irrigable land. In any case in order to secure our water future, we have no choice but to build more dams/reservoirs (and protect their watersheds) to capture the 2400 millimeters of rain we are blest with every year. We need these dams to capture water for domestic and industrial uses, for hydropower generation, for irrigation and to recharge aquifers. We therefore have to persevere in investing more in irrigation and drainage systems for our nation’s long-term water and food security although for now the immediate higher priority is for rehabilitation and for operation and maintenance of existing systems rather than new construction.

However, the tasks of rehabilitation/restoration and of proper operation and maintenance of irrigation systems to achieve higher crop yields and to attain higher levels of cropping intensity cannot be borne by NIA alone.

It will need the active cooperation and help of various stakeholders which include the irrigators associations, the local government units (LGUs), non-government organizations (NGOs), state colleges and universities (SCUs) as well as NIA and its sister agencies in the  Department of Agriculture [Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM), Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) and Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech)].

The effective operation and maintenance (O & M) of irrigation systems require expertise in engineering, social mobilization, business development and agronomy. NIA’s institutional strength is biased to engineering. It will therefore be a mistake to rely exclusively on NIA to look after the O & M and supervision of irrigators associations.

In the first place the legal mandate for organizing, supervising and monitoring farmers associations under the AFMA law rests with the municipal, city and provincial offices of the local governments. But unfortunately the LGUs for the most part are short of staff, expertise and funds.

The non-government organizations (NGOs) on the other hand are very good at social organization and mobilization but they have limited competence in business development and agronomy.

The SCUs have agronomy and business development expertise but except for the larger, older SCUs they have no funds for extension.

The other DA agencies possess complementary technical expertise which NIA does not have. PhilRice is the lead agency for rice culture; BPI for the culture of other crops; PhilMech for farm mechanization and processing, and BSWM for design, construction and operation of small irrigation projects.

The broader, longer-term and sustainable solution is convergence and complementation of efforts, expertise and resources among these stakeholders.

Water Users and Irrigation Management Transfer

Among the stakeholders, the engagement of the water users themselves and their irrigators associations (IAs) is vital. The clearing of the canals of unwanted vegetation and trash; minor repairs of dikes; water conservation; equitable distribution and timely delivery of water are tasks which the farmers themselves, individually and collectively, must assume for their self-interest.

Cognizant of the key role of the farmers and their associations, NIA adopted the corporate strategy of gradually transferring the operation and maintenance of irrigation systems to the irrigators associations [Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT)].

As of September 2015, NIA has organized 2736 IAs involving 580,600 farmers covering 750,170 hectares (Ofrecio, Bayani 2016). Of the total IAs, 94 per cent have entered into formal contracts with NIA to assume partial responsibility for O&M. Although these numbers are impressive on paper, the reality on the ground is less sanguine judging on the reported low cropping intensities of 1.59 and 1.37 respectively for NIA and CIS irrigation systems.

Irrigators Associations Service Providers

The transfer of management responsibility for the irrigation systems from NIA to the IAs goes through stages (Models I to IV) as the farmers gain experience and confidence. To date 95 percent of the IAs who have signed formal contracts with NIA have qualified for Models I and II, meaning, the IAs are responsible for maintaining the systems but only up to the sublateral canals. The headworks/dams, the main canals and the lateral canals stay with NIA. The ideal is for NIA to keep the headworks/dams and the main canals but the rest of the system from the lateral canals to downstream should be with the IAs. Thus, the IMT program still has a long way to go.

A key reform which needs to be explored is the commissioning by NIA/DA of NGOs, consulting firms, and state colleges and universities to provide management and supervision support to irrigators associations. These service providers will be compensated based on agreed performance indicators like expansion of numbers of regular members, buildup of capital, installation of financial controls, cropping intensity, cropping yields, new business/marketing arrangements, and ultimately, farmers’ incomes.

As the irrigators associations gain expertise and stability, the service providers can move on to the underperforming IAs.

Cropping Systems Research and SCUs

The larger gains from irrigation will be obtained from the purposeful diversification from rice to other higher value crops. Most vegetables, fruits and ornamentals give higher returns and require less volume of water per unit of economic produce compared with rice. However, since most of these other crops cannot tolerate water logging, rice will remain as the dominant crop during the rainy season.

The crops and varieties to raise; the methods of culture and availability of markets are season and location specific. Thus, the need for cropping systems research and adaptability tests for different parts of the country. These support services can be provided by PhilRice, BPI, PhilMech and SCUs.

The state colleges and universities in particular should be mobilized to establish the agronomic and economic feasibility of various cropping combinations. For this purpose, dedicated research and extension units should be established in the SUCs to service the needs of the farmers in their respective regions. These dedicated research and development (R&D) and training units should be provided funds in the regular budgets of the universities. And to ensure that these academic units work closely with NIA and other DA agencies, their programs and budgets should be endorsed by the DA Regional Directors.

To be continued . . . (Part IV)

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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.