December 14, 2023
MANILA – President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Wednesday ordered concerned government agencies to complete water-related projects, mostly for farm irrigation and power supply, by April 2024 as part of several measures lined up to mitigate the impact of potentially the worst drought in decades due to the El Niño weather phenomenon.
The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) on Monday warned that at least 65 provinces, or 77 percent of the archipelago, were likely to experience moderate to severe drought conditions from February to May next year due to a “strong” El Niño, which is characterized by a warming of the ocean surface that increases the likelihood of below-normal rainfall conditions, potentially causing prolonged dry spells in some parts of the country.
In a speech during the inauguration of the Balbalungao Small Reservoir Irrigation Project (BSRIP) in Lupao, Nueva Ecija, the president said the government would also implement fiscal measures to cushion the impact of the El Niño dry spell.
“I think we will also have some other strategies concerning the fiscal measures that we can undertake to reduce the load on our countrymen,” he said.
“We are doing an analysis now of world prices of food to see what would be the appropriate tariff level, what will be the appropriate fiscal measures that we can undertake, at what level do we do this, how much, what percentage, all of these,” he added.
Marcos said he had ordered the creation of a Task Force El Niño under the Office of the President.
“There already exists one but we will change the structure because this is I think a more serious and a more extensive effort because we really have to get everybody involved to be able to prepare, to make sure that we can minimize, alleviate, and adapt to climate change,” he said.
Marcos said the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) would also continue to assist El Niño victims, adding that the government would implement programs similar to what the government did when inflation was at its peak.
“DSWD is there. We will continue to provide AICS [Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situation], Tupad [Livelihood Assistance to Our Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers], especially for farmers who have — that have been hit, whose crops were damaged,” he said.
Tempered GDP growth
The El Niño phenomenon, along with the impact of high interest rates on consumption and investments, has prompted the government to give up on hitting 8-percent economic growth, the upper end of its target range, in 2024.
At most, Secretary Arsenio Balisacan of the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) noted on Wednesday that the economy could still attain the lower-limit, saying “I would not this early give away the 6.5 target, but 8 (percent) may be way out.”
As gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged 5.5 percent in the first three quarters, the economy would have to expand by 7.2 percent in the fourth quarter to attain at least the low-end of the government’s 6-7 percent growth target for this year.
Balisacan said what was worrying was the threat of a prolonged El Niño dry spell.
“We have been mobilizing for the anticipated impacts of the upcoming El Niño through a comprehensive, coordinated, science-based approach,” the Neda chief said.
The government will ask traders to frontload their commodity imports, Balisacan said, pointing out that “the time to store is now and if such storage happens early, we can moderate the increases in prices next year.”
The government is also considering extending a reduction in tariffs for commodities such as meat, corn and rice beyond the Dec. 31, 2023, deadline.
“Managing this El Niño is very crucial,” Balisacan said. “If we intervene enough, early enough and fast enough, we may be able to reduce upward pressure on prices.”
Dry spell underway
The “moderate to severe drought conditions” from February to May next year would be comparable to the drought during the 1997-1998 El Niño, which was the country’s worst-ever dry spell.
According to the DOST chief, El Niño was already underway, bringing drier conditions to some areas of the country where there had been up to an 80-percent reduction in rainfall.
Solidum urged government agencies to begin preparing to ensure enough water, food, and electricity would be available.
“We need to plan ahead and make it fast,” Solidum said.
Temperatures in Metro Manila could reach up to 38.3 degrees Celsius in April and May—comparable to 1998 figures, he said.
The country has so far endured fewer storms in 2023 than in any of the past 25 years.
Ranked among the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change, the Philippines is usually affected by around 20 major storms a year.
So far this year, only 10 have made landfall or came close, the lowest number since 1998 when 11 were recorded, said Ana Solis, chief climatologist at the state weather forecaster.
With less than three weeks of the year left, “it looks like the record will be beaten,” Solis told the AFP news agency, adding that climate change was “probably” a factor.
The Philippines began keeping weather records in 1948, Solis said.
Boost to farming
In his Nueva Ecija speech, the president assured Filipinos of the government’s commitment to develop modern infrastructure systems that would enhance the country’s agriculture sector.
Once fully operational, the Nueva Ecija multipurpose dam would provide irrigation for close to 1,000 hectares of agricultural land in the villages of San Isidro, Balbalungao, Salvacion, and Mapangpang, benefiting about 560 farmers and their families.
“The dam will generate diversified income opportunities through increased crop yields, fish culture, tourism, and watershed management for environmental protection,” Marcos said.
The dam, according to the President, would facilitate hydroelectric power generation and serve as a flood control mitigation infrastructure for the communities along the river for years to come.
He called on the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) and the Department of Agriculture (DA) to ensure the timely completion of the other facilities of the project, such as its hydropower, its watershed components, so that communities would be able to fully enjoy the benefits of the project.
“Anticipating the success of the BSRIP in transforming the province’s lands into thriving hubs of productivity, we remain steadfast in our pursuit of food security, poverty reduction, and economic growth,” he said.
“So, we remind once again the DA and the NIA to immediately complete the construction of irrigation facilities as well as other supporting structures based on the needs of our farmers,” he added.