By Madelaine B. Miraflor
He may have failed to get his desired 2019 budget for his agency, but Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol was still assured by no less than President Rodrigo Duterte of massive funds to bankroll the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) ambitious solar-powered irrigation project.
Piñol said that Duterte pledged that DA will get the money that it needs to undertake a nationwide Solar-Powered Irrigation Systems (SPIS) program, which aims to provide water to at least 500,000 hectares of farms over the remaining four years of the current administration.
Based on Piñol’s “impromptu” computation, the cost of building SPIS covering 500,000 hectares of land would amount to P43.7 billion.
This, since each SPIS unit, which has a capacity to irrigate 80 hectares, would cost around P7 million to set up. The target is to build 6,250 of this facility.
The commitment was during the 28th Cabinet Meeting held in Malacañang on Tuesday.
Piñol said that even if the agriculture sector was not in the agenda of the meeting, Duterte still asked for an update about the SPIS project, which he launched in March last year.
“I informed the President that 169 units have either been completed or undergoing construction this year but next year, the budget will only allow us to build 10 additional units. I told the President that the DA will have to abandon some of its non-essential programs and realign the funds to the SPIS program for 2019 with a target of at least 100 additional units,” Piñol said.
Currently, only 1.2 million hectares of the estimated 3.9 million hectares of rice farms are served by the irrigation systems under the National Irrigation Administration (NIA).
Meanwhile, most of the non-irrigated rice farms could only produce between 3 to 4 metric tons (MT) per harvest, a production capacity that could be improved if there is available water supply all year round.
“In fact, the estimate is that the additional 500,000 hectares of unirrigated rice farms, if served by small irrigation systems, could produce an average of 6 MT per harvest twice a year,” Piñol said.
Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno then told Duterte that the money for the SPIS program could come from the Rice Tariffication Program and regular funds, which can be included in the national budget for 2020.
To recall, the administration has been pushing for the passage of the law amending the Agricultural Tariffication Act, which will replace the import quota we received from the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The law aims to protect local farmers from the entry of more imported rice into the country through the imposition of 35 percent tariff on rice coming from member-countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) like Thailand and Vietnam.
Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) will then be created from tariff revenues collected from the rice imports.
It will be used to directly support rice farmers and fund innovative undertakings of the government to further strengthen the rice industry.
For 2019, the DA was only given a fund of P55.9 billion, which is lower by P6 billion from its budget this year. This was amid concerns that the agency can’t fully utilize its budget.