Among the factors determining rice productivity, water availability is key. It was therefore a surprise, and a disappointment, that the President left out the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) in the organizational realignment of agriculture with the return of the National Food Authority (NFA), Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), and the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA) from the Office of the President to the Department of Agriculture (DA) where these vital national agencies properly belong.
By now we have invested over P700 billion in the development of irrigation systems. While the nation’s attention is riveted on the rice problem, it is opportune to take a good look on how well we are managing our irrigation systems and how we can derive more benefits from them.
As pointed out in the previous columns, our rice problem has two conflicting dimensions: The need to raise productivity and support the price of palay to increase incomes of poor farmers, and the compelling need to bring down the price of rice to make the staple affordable to all Filipinos.
Since our cost of producing palay is high (P12.41, P8.85 and P6.53 per kilogram, for the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, respectively), the expedient solution is simply to import more rice from our neighbors. But imports address the latter dimension but neglect the first.
Actually there is a better way: We grow rice under two ecological conditions — irrigated lowlands versus rainfed lowlands and uplands. We should focus our rice efforts in the irrigated lowlands where with adequate fertilization we can get average yields of 6.0 tons palay per hectare at an average unit cost of P8 per kilogram. At this unit cost, our domestic rice will be competitive with imports. We can further bring down the palay unit cost by planting hybrids which can yield 7-8 tons per hectare.
Conversely, we should diversify the rainfed lowlands and uplands which are less favorable for growing rice into other higher-valued crops like vegetables, fruits, legumes and even ornamentals. In fact, provided the markets are arranged, these farms can turn out to be more profitable than the rice monocropped farms.
But in order to succeed in both approaches we need to install more small irrigation units.
Embedding small irrigation units in the large irrigation systems
By now we have developed 1.7 million hectares out of the 3.0 million potentially irrigable lands with a slope of 3% and less.
However, we are not able to benefit in full from our investments in these irrigation systems. The actual cropping intensity in the irrigated areas is only 1.57 i.e. there is sufficient water for only 57% of the designed service area to grow a second crop of rice.
There are a number of complementary ways to raise water use efficiency to approach the target cropping intensity of 2.00. One of the more reliable ways in the long term is to supplement the available water from the main irrigation systems with small irrigation units like shallow tube wells and small farm reservoirs.
With small irrigation units embedded in the large systems, the rice farmers now have an option to confidently grow a second crop of rice. And even more profitably, to switch to other higher value crops for the second and third crops, after the obligatory rice crop during the rainy season when the fields are partially flooded anyway.
This is the flaw in the organizational design of our publicly funded irrigation systems which has been overlooked all these years. The mandates for constructing, administering and supervising irrigation systems have been compartmentalized between NIA for the large systems and the Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM) for the small irrigation units. BSWM is not allowed to install small irrigation units in the NIA — supervised large irrigation systems.
This mistake is long overdue for correction. In order to make the most out of our huge investments in the large irrigation systems, we should in fact promote the installation therein of shallow tube wells and small ponds.
Hence the imperative to bring NIA back to the Department of Agriculture to facilitate the inter-unit collaboration between NIA and BSWM.
Relatedly, tactically in the next five years or so, we should direct more investments in small irrigation units and realign extension efforts towards multiple cropping and farm-market linkages.
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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