Making free irrigation fair and forward looking.
'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
I have written about the free irrigation bills then pending in Congress and why free irrigation is unfair, retrogressive and therefore ill advised.
However, now that Congress has passed a free irrigation bill and the President has signed it into law, can we still make it equitable and progressive? Yes, we can!
On the surface the free irrigation policy is pro-farmer but upon closer scrutiny it is in fact unfair to the greater majority of small farmers and to the rest of us taxpayers.
Of course, it is welcome to the minority of farmers whose rice farms are served by existing National and Communal Irrigation systems. But it is unfair to the greater number of rainfed lowland rice farmers, upland rice farmers, corn farmers, sugarcane growers, vegetables and legume growers as well as fruit farmers who are waiting for their turn for their farms to be similarly irrigated.
Out of our 10 million hectares of farm lands, three million hectares are relatively flat, with slopes of three percent and less, and therefore suitable for irrigation development. But of the three million hectares, we have installed irrigation systems for only 1.72 million or 57 percent. Thus, we still have 1.28 million hectares to go with the balance of potentially irrigable lands.
In fact with proper safeguards, farm lands with as much as eight percent slope can also be irrigable. This raises our potentially irrigable lands to as high as six million hectares.
All these potential small farmer beneficiaries have to wait longer because the appropriations National Irrigation Administration (NIA) would have spent to construct new systems are diverted to repair and maintenance which previously were funded from irrigation fees.
Worse, under the new irrigation act, NIA (meaning the rest of us taxpayers) has to pay the water beneficiaries for clearing the canals that convey water to their own fields. This is like paying people to clean their backyards. This is absurd.
The real problem as noted by Senator Cynthia Villar, the Chair of Senate Committee of Agriculture, is that NIA is increasingly spending more and more for repair and maintenance rather than for installation of new irrigation systems. Abolition of irrigation service fees aggravates the problem.
Moreover, the world is running out of fresh water. By 2050 the world's population would have ballooned to 10 billion and demand for fresh water would have increased by 55 percent. Agriculture will continue to account for the largest share of fresh water use but industrial and domestic uses will increase much more rapidly. Global agriculture will have to produce 60 percent more food by 2050 but with less and less water.
The handwriting is on the wall. In the face of rising, competing demands from industry, domestic uses, power generation and environment uses, fresh water will inevitably became a scarce economic resource that must be carefully conserved, managed and used most efficiently. Many countries are now contemplating metered pricing of irrigation water, and even rationing down the road. And here we are with our new free irrigation act, running in the opposite direction, mindlessly giving fresh water free.
Making good on the president's promise of free irrigation
President Duterte's concern to relieve small farmers of the burden of paying irrigation fees is admirable and merits support. The farmers should not be charged for the construction and major rehabilitation of irrigation systems especially after typhoons. Nor should they pay for the operation and maintenance of upstream irrigation facilities like the major pumps/gates/locks and the main canals. These are highly technical and costly operations very appropriately assumed by government.
However, at the tail end of the irrigation systems are the secondary and tertiary canals which convey water directly to the farmers' fields. Those canals need to be periodically cleared of silt and vegetation which obstruct the free flow of water. These are chores the farmers can readily perform themselves without much effort and cost.
It is also at these sites where the contentious sensitive decisions are made on equitable distribution of water among users and timely delivery. This is a role the farmers through their Irrigations Associations are in a better position to resolve among themselves than government.
It is therefore only fair and proper that the upkeep of the tail end of the irrigation systems and the discipline of water sharing and timely delivery be assumed by the water users themselves. In retrospect, this had been the rationale all along of the Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT) corporate strategy of NIA.
Hence instead of paying NIA, the farmers ought to be obliged to contribute the equivalent amounts to their respective Irrigators Associations (IAs) both for partial support for cleaning canals but more importantly for the capital buildup of their cooperatives.
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 as the President promised, but pay themselves, as a form of forced savings.
There is still time. This concept can be integrated into the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of the new free irrigation water act of 2018.
Fortunately, we receive 2,400 millimeters of rain every year, more than enough if we protect our watersheds and build enough dams and farm reservoir to capture and hold on to the water.
But even now urban centers like Metro Manila, Cebu and Baguio are beginning to suffer from water deficits during the summer. In the latest study of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Philippines was rated WATER INSECURE and embarrassingly ranked 38th among the 48 countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
The conundrum of free irrigation water is only the tip of the iceberg of the far greater challenge of providing for a water secure future. The President should now call a WATER SUMMIT as being championed by the Agriculture and Fisheries Alliance led by Ernesto Ordonez.
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).
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