Short-sighted and anti-development
THE NATIONAL Irrigation Administration (NIA) is exploring the possibility of abolishing the irrigation service fee that farmers pay. The collection of fees is part of the NIA’s mandate under Republic Act No. 3601, which created the agency. Abolishing the irrigation service fee appears to be the popular opinion of lawmakers and, understandably, farmers’ groups. However, it is my opinion that doing away with the fee is not only short-sighted but also anti-development.
It appears that the NIA’s plan to abolish the irrigation service fee is driven by its frustration over poor collections from farmers. It would seem better to remove this festering problem of fee collection and drop it on the government’s lap. It is not surprising that some people are enthusiastically supporting this scheme. I believe, however, that this plan is counterproductive because it will likely confirm the entrenched attitude among farmers to be dependent on the government, without sharing the cost or burden of their own development.
It is unworthy of a development agency like the NIA to further coddle farmers by giving them a free ride all the way. It is also a mistake to assume that all farmers are against paying the irrigation service fee.
One important lesson I’ve learned as an irrigation consultant for 12 years is that when it comes to the payment of such fees, farmers are not deadbeat or delinquent. The hundreds of Filipino farmers I’ve rubbed elbows with don’t pay the fee because of their frustration over poor irrigation facilities, such as faultily designed canals that fail to deliver water to intended targets; missing control structures like gates and turnouts; lateral canals that overflow; silted canals, etc.
With these physical defects in the irrigation system that contribute to poor harvest, how can anyone expect farmers to assume the responsibility of regularly paying the irrigation service fee? The farmers can pay and are willing to pay the fee provided that the NIA will first fix the nonfunctioning irrigation infrastructures in the farms.
There was a time in the NIA’s history when water user associations actively cooperated with the agency because they were treated as real partners in irrigation activities. Being partners rather than spectators in the gallery, the water user associations were sought by the NIA for their opinion and advice on the proper locations of canals and other farm facilities. They also participated in the canvassing of materials in order to minimize chances of improper disbursement of funds. With the close collaboration between NIA engineers and farmers, the newly constructed irrigation systems functioned properly, the farmers paid their dues willingly, and the NIA did not think of abolishing irrigation service fees.
It bears remembering that what was called the “participatory irrigation program” eventually became a model that was adapted by irrigation institutions in Asia. The program was funded by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Ford Foundation. The Institute of Philippine Culture (Ateneo de Manila University) documented it, and it became a much-studied topic among social scientists and irrigation engineers in a number of American universities including
Cornell University in New York and Fort Collins University in Colorado, not to mention the University of the Philippines Los Baños and Central Luzon University in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija.
Hundreds of foreign irrigation practitioners came to the Philippines to observe and learn the participator approach to irrigation development. Meanwhile, some members of the team that implemented the program were hired by international consulting firms to help apply the approach to their projects.
It seems that the urge to abolish the irrigation service fee is triggered by the NIA’s failure to organize active and vibrant irrigation associations that are highly motivated to share, rather than slink away from, the task of national development.
The NIA has earlier produced a successful model that enlivened water user associations into actively participating in the achievement of the agency’s goals. In short, the template is there to be replicated. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. The only thing that the NIA has to do now is to replicate this model that was once the toast of the world.
Carlos D. Isles ([email protected]) was an irrigation management consultant of the National Irrigation Administration from 1976 to 1984.
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