No water, no rice


By Ernesto Ordoñez
Philippine Daily Inquirer

26 February 2010



LAST FEB. 22, THE KEY ISSUE OF “NO water, no rice” was discussed at a forum sponsored by Rice Watch. The numbers shown by Rice Watch’s Hazel Tanchuling and Jessica Canto gave cause for concern. We are once again the largest rice importer in the world.

Furthermore, Rice Watch said that the planned rice imports were more than what we needed. The consequence is that the government, in an effort to dispose of excess rice, may lower rice prices to the detriment of rice farmers. This scenario is made much worse by the onset of El Niño this year.

Root cause

“The government should stop just reacting to crisis, but instead address the real problem and plan for the future. The government should ... provide the water the farmers need,” said Jaime Tadeo, chair of the Rice Council of the Philippines and an Alyansa Agrikultura board.

Tadeo identified key programs that are needed, such as comprehensive watershed protection, and a serious irrigation program. He pointed to the well maintained irrigation systems in Thailand and Indonesia, and compared these with our meager and badly maintained irrigation systems.

As far back as July 2003, the Alyansa underscored in its agri-fishery action agenda the need for a reforestation program and a well-planned irrigation system.

“[There is a need for] adequate resources for the expansion of irrigated areas and repair of existing irrigation facilities, taking into consideration the best cost-benefit approach,” the Alyansa agenda item reads.

The Alyansa’s analysis, published in the January 21, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, showed the great cost-benefit advantage of rehabilitation and repair versus new irrigation. The Alyansa argued this position aggressively through the years. This advocacy has paid off, as shown below.

Cost-benefit analysis

The above table belows hints at good news.

The irrigation budget declined from P7.1 billion in 2002 to P4.5 billion in 2003. But the budget has since been on the rise since 2009. It now stands P12.6.

Rehabilitation budget share

2009 P12.6B P6.0 B 48%
2003 P4.5 B P0.3 B 7%
2002 P7.1 B P0.5 B 7%

The percentage share of this budget has also increased from 7 percent in 2002 and 2003 to 48 percent in 2009. However, this percentage share is not good enough, considering the cost-benefit analysis provided by the Alyansa.

Data gathered only three days ago from the National Irrigation Administration showed that the average cost to rehabilitate and repair an inoperative irrigation system is only P60,000. On the other hand, the cost of establishing a new irrigation system averages P300,000. The benefit is the same: An added planting season for the farmer.

Why pay five times more for a new system when you will get the same benefit by rehabilitating an existing system? The answer is that politics, rather than economics, has largely determined the way government money is spent.

Politics over economics

Today, there are 1.53 million irrigated hectares. This is only 49 percent of the 3.1 million hectares that are waiting to be irrigated.

There is a need for the government to show it is increasing the irrigated area by establishing new systems. If the government places all its money in rehabilitation, then there will be no increase in the number of hectares irrigated. To show an increase, the majority of the irrigation budget is being used on new systems instead of rehabilitation.

At the start of 2006, 368,000 irrigated hectares were not operational. For the last four years, the average annual number of hectares that were rehabilitated was only 51,000 hectares. It is now time to put economics over politics. The first priority should be to rehabilitate all non-operating areas at a fifth of the cost of new systems. After that, the remaining money can be used to build new systems. This rehabilitation of the non-operating 164,000 irrigated hectares will produce an additional 721,600 tons of rice a year.

In the year ahead, as we face the prospect of “no water, no rice” in many areas, cost-benefit analysis must be applied before scarce government funds are spent, specially in the critical area of irrigation. Economics, not politics, should be the guiding principle as we face the challenge of food security today.

(The author is chair of Agriwatch, former secretary for presidential flagship programs and projects, and former undersecretary for Agriculture, and Trade and Industry. For inquiries and suggestions, email or telefax (02) 8522112)












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