Philippines braces for worst drought in years

Forecasters say El Niño is on its way and will be even more ferocious
Philippines braces for worst drought in years

Land activists warn that this year's El Niño could spur drought conditions and devastate crops in the Philippines. (Photo by Vincent Go)

Environmental activists have warned that this year’s El Niño season could be the worst in years and that the government remains unprepared for severe drought conditions that could result from the seasonal weather phenomenon.

Peasant leader Fernando Hicap said a current lack of access to water for farmers would be exacerbated by drought conditions that are expected to begin next month.

“The effects of El Niño have yet to be felt by farmers, but they are already suffering from a lack of access to irrigation. How much more when the dry spell is here,” he told on Thursday.

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) said El Niño is expected to occur some time in June or July.

El Niño is caused by the warming of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific and can affect air and sea currents.

The phenomenon is expected to bring below-average rainfall in the last quarter of this year through the first quarter of 2015.

The Department of Agriculture, which recently formed a task force on El Niño, has declared 44 of the country's 81 provinces to be highly vulnerable to any resulting dry spell. 

Fr Peter Walpole SJ, head of the Jesuit research institute Environmental Science for Social Change, warned that the lack of preparedness "is reflected in the stories we hear of irrigation sources drying up, with minimal attention given to water impoundment".

Walpole noted in a recent article on El Niño that in the Bengal region, nearly every family has a pond or water source because the region is located in the low lying areas of the Ganges Delta. 

"This is an adaptation the Philippines has not caught on to as a necessary adaptation in many areas," the Jesuit priest wrote.

Presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma, however, said in a statement that the government is prepared for the dry spell, adding that food supply is the main priority under the government’s proposed 2015 budget. 

"There are concrete programs to ensure food supply in case of calamities or disasters such as [crop] devastation."

The threat of a dry spell has been blamed for causing a spike in the cost of staples such as rice, meat and fruit.

Arsenio Balisacan, head of the National Economic and Development Authority, noted a "tightness" in the country’s rice supply, resulting in higher prices.

"The relatively higher corn prices may be attributed to lower production of corn resulting from dry spells in a number of corn-producing regions," Balisacan said during a media briefing on Thursday.

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The Philippines experienced the worst El Niño in 1997 and 1998 that caused an estimated $68 million worth of damage to agriculture.

In 2010, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs raised food security warnings for the Philippines and said that damage caused by El Niño since 1997 amounted to $239 million.

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