The last column was about the new draft rice industry road map being put together by the Department of Agriculture (DA). With the imminent lifting of the quantitative restrictions (QRs) on the imports of rice but with the imposition of tariffs, a surge in the imports of cheap rice from Thailand and Vietnam is expected.
The cheap imports will bring down the retail cost of rice to the benefit of consumers but will depress farm gate price of palay which will further impoverish the rice farmers who are unable to compete. Hence, the imperative for a new rice industry road map to take into account the new market circumstances.
Implied in the draft plan was a shift in primary objective from rice self-sufficiency to producing as much rice as we can at a cost competitive with imports. Although related, there is a whole world of difference in operational terms between these two objectives.
This was to be achieved by raising farm yields to 5-6 tons palay per hectare at a cost of P8.00-P10.00 per kilogram. At this cost of production and partial protection at 35% tariff, the domestic rice will be competitive with the P9.00 per kilogram and P7.00 per kilogram palay costs of Thailand and Vietnam, respectively.
The draft plan adopted a provincial approach and classified the rice-producing provinces into High, Medium and Low Priority provinces, depending upon: 1) yield in tons per hectare and 2) cost of producing a kilogram of palay.
Rice farmers in the Low Priority Provinces will be assisted to shift to other, more often, higher value crops, which may in fact bring them more income. This diversion of the less productive rice farms away from rice will reduce the national rice output, and hence preclude self-sufficiency.
On the other hand, support for the rice sector will focus on the high-yielding, low-cost producing provinces. However if one goes deeper, the high-yield, low-cost producing provinces are in fact those with large areas under irrigation or those provinces with proportionately more irrigated than rainfed and upland rice farms.
The province approach is politically correct but the strategy really boils down to: 1) further intensification of rice production in irrigated areas, and 2) diversification of rainfed lowland and upland rice farms into other higher value crops. Expressed another way, the primary objective is not rice self-sufficiency but raising rice farmers’ incomes.
Small irrigation units are the KEY
We have over 1.5 million hectares out of the 3.0 million potentially irrigable areas already covered by national and communal irrigation systems. The national irrigation systems are the large systems (over 1,000 hectares) constructed and administered by the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) while the communal systems are the smaller ones initiated and administered by local government units (LGUs).
We should continue investing in these irrigation systems to effectively multiply per capita availability of farm land which is alarmingly getting even smaller with population increase and diversion of farm lands into other useful purposes i.e. human settlements (subdivisions) and industrial sites. But as importantly, to capture the valuable fresh water from rainfall (2.4 meters per year) which we are blessed with, before the rainwater flow uselessly to the sea.
However, the large irrigation systems (national and communal) are not efficiently utilized as they naturally run short of water towards the dry season. Moreover, the large irrigation systems are designed for rice where water can be retained in the paddy for days. This is not suitable for culture of other crops which cannot tolerate flooding and whose water requirements are intermittent.
This is where small irrigation units come in. Many farmers in the downstream service area of the large systems hesitate to plant a second crop anymore for lack of assurance of water availability. The installation of shallow tube wells and small farm reservoirs to provide supplemental water are therefore key to the first part of the new strategy which is the “further intensification of rice production in irrigated areas.”
Small irrigation units are integral as well with the second part of the strategy of “diversification of rainfed lowland and upland rice into other higher value crops.” Without control of water availability very important for the successful culture of other crops, which small irrigation units allow, most farmers will hesitate growing the other crops. This is the explanation why Ilocos Norte rice farmers are so successful, in addition to their legendary industry and thrift.
Return NIA to DA
The large irrigation systems are designed, constructed and administered by NIA while the small irrigation units are the responsibility of the DA Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM). To avoid agency conflicts, in practice, the BSWM does not install small irrigation units in the service areas supervised/administered by NIA.
The divorce of large irrigation systems from small irrigation units is no longer tenable under the strategy called for by the new rice industry road map. Hence, the desirability that both NIA and BSWM be under the Secretary of the DA for better coordination and clearer accountability.
This re-alignment of functions makes possible the opportunity to revisit the corporate strategy of NIA to transfer operations and maintenance responsibility of the downstream facilities to Irrigators’ Associations (IAs) which sadly to date after forty years remains largely a concept in progress. It is a well-accepted principle the world over that the management and maintenance of the downstream facilities of irrigation systems are better achieved by the full cooperation of the water users themselves. However, dealing with farmers and water cooperatives require a set of skills beyond dam construction.
NIA which is largely populated by competent civil and agricultural engineers can now focus on design and construction of major civil works where they are good at. The challenge of transferring the management and maintenance of the downstream facilities to the Irrigators Associations is better left to the agronomists, soils scientists, agricultural economists and the social organizers and extension experts of the BSWM.
This re-arrangement will require very close coordination between NIA and BSWM, Hence our repeated calls for the return of NIA from the Office of the President to the DA.
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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