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Irrigation: We can do better

Did you know that funding for irrigation multiplied by more than five times between 2008 and 2018 (from P8 billion to P41.7 billion)? For 2018 alone, such appropriation accounted for over 40 percent of the total allocation for the agriculture sector, noted Drs. Arlene Inocencio and Roehlano Briones in a recent Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) Policy Note.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that except for 1997, government has consistently missed achieving its target of new irrigated areas since 1990. In fact, the PIDS paper notes that in 16 out of the 29 years since then, the National Irrigation Administration achieved only 50 percent or less of its target area for new irrigation. Likewise, it has consistently missed its targets in restoration of existing but nonfunctional irrigation systems. Through the years, government investments in irrigation development have either built new irrigation facilities where there were none before, or repaired and restored old irrigation systems that had fallen into disuse out of sheer neglect. The latter is no less important than the former, as both serve to increase cropping intensity, or degree of utilization (hence productivity), of existing croplands.

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The challenge of restoring old irrigation systems is not unique to the Philippines. An irrigation forum held at the Asian Development Bank noted a common cycle of “build-neglect-rehabilitate-neglect” in irrigation and drainage systems across Asia, and the Philippines is particularly notorious in this. (Note that drainage is just as important, especially where waterlogging is a problem.) This costly cycle arises from failure to provide enough funds for maintenance. We’ve heard the common lament over the years: We like to provide budgets to build new structures or buy new equipment but fail to allot funds to maintain them. The result: much shorter life spans for such facilities than they would otherwise be good for.

What is sad is that in some cases, existing irrigation facilities are not just neglected, but even deliberately destroyed. In the course of a Brain Trust Inc. study on roots of persistent rural poverty commissioned by the government last year, we came across the problem of how the practice of land banking by large property development firms leads to this. Large tracts of farmland, once acquired for land banking purposes by a developer, are deliberately taken out of agricultural production. An eyewitness account by a local bank manager told of how one such developer deliberately destroyed irrigation facilities on land just acquired. The reason? For the land to be legally converted later to residential or commercial use, the owner-developer must prove that the land is nonproductive. It appears that overly rigid land conversion rules had the unintended consequence of taking out many irrigated farmlands out of production much faster than necessary. More realistic rules should be able to address this problem better.

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Another traditional problem with our irrigation situation is how it has focused almost entirely on rice. Analysts have long pointed to many other important promising crops in need of irrigation, including sugarcane and various vegetable and fruit crops. We have failed to tap the potential of agriculture as a leading economic driver because of the utter neglect for other crops, including our historical mainstays coconut and sugar, out of an inordinate focus of attention and budgets on rice. Lack of agricultural diversification has kept us far behind our neighbors in agricultural development — even as once upon a time, we were their acknowledged mentors in the agricultural sciences at UP Los Baños.

Realization of this distortion struck home when I recently encountered a sugarcane farmer in Western Visayas, who recounted how irrigation authorities told him that for his farm to be covered by a major new irrigation project, he must first shift to rice! It seems that too many of our irrigation officials still think that their work is dedicated to that one crop alone.

One thing is clear: Irrigation in this country needs a long hard look—and a lot of out-of-the-box thinking.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, irrigation, National Irrigation Administration, NIA, No Free Lunch
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