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Helping irrigators associations succeed

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Dr. Emil Q. Javier

Dr. Emil Q. Javier

This is third on the series on irrigators associations (IAs) as a systemic, long-term way of addressing the constraints to productivity and competitiveness of Philippine agriculture which for the most part consist of small farms. The Rice Tariffication Act (RTA) provides a fresh opportunity to breathe more life to the irrigators associations by providing additional reasons for our small farmers to band together. Coursing the free farm machines, seeds, subsidized credit and targeted training and extension services provided in the new RTA through the IAs are additional compelling incentives for farmers to join the IAs.

The National Irrigation Administration (NIA) has adopted for its corporate strategy the phased transfer of the operations and maintenance of the irrigation systems they build to the water beneficiaries themselves (Irrigation Management Transfer Program). The institutional instruments are the irrigators associations of which to date 9230 had been organized covering 1.39 million hectares of prime lands and serving 1.12 million beneficiaries. Of this total, 8,634 IAs (93%) had been officially registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). However only 44% (4,096) of the IAs had entered into formal management contracts with NIA.

Thus, NIA is barely halfway through in its objective of formally transferring the operations and maintenance (O&M) responsibilities to the water users.

Outsourcing of support
services crucial

The downstream O&M of irrigation systems require expertise in engineering, social mobilization, agronomy, and business management. The mobilization and social preparation of the farmers necessarily take patience and a long time to attain. And beyond that the farmers need to be introduced to modern farming techniques and sound business practices to compete in the market.

NIA does not and most likely will never have enough people in its organization with this wide variety of competencies. In fact, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) thought NIA had too many and reduced by half its plantilla during the last government rationalization exercise.

The institutional strength of NIA is in the design, construction, and major rehabilitation of irrigation systems (civil engineering). Therefore, its better option is to outsource these complementary expertise from other national agencies; from state universities and colleges (SUCs); private professional service providers, and from not-for-profit non-government organizations (NGOs) and corporate foundations.

Fortunately, NIA has more than enough funds to outsource these expertise. For 2018 NIA’s regular budget plus carry-over funds was P45.44 billion. However, its programmed allocation for Irrigation Management Transfer Support Services (IMTSS) was a measly P108 million (0.2%). It is a matter of re-programming for irrigation management transfer at least 2.0% of its annual budget. Since NIA’s annual budget the last few years is at least P30 billion, that will mean P600 million per year, which should be adequate.

For IAs to succeed they need the support of the whole of the Department of Agriculture DA), and more. NIA by itself can only do so much. The key institutional partners are Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PHilMech), Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM), Agricultural Training Institute (ATI), and Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP), all of which have direct reporting responsibilities with the Secretary of DA. For this reason, we are happy that President Rodrigo Duterte finally rectified this organizational anomaly by returning NIA to the DA.

Moreover, it should be kept in mind that while the publicly-pronounced primary objective of irrigation is to increase and stabilize yields of rice, the larger benefits in fact will be derived by the farmers from multiple cropping and diversification into other high-value crops like vegetables, annual fruits, legumes, and even ornamentals. Hence the need for expertise beyond rice.

More attention to SWISAs
for upland farmers

Less appreciated are the opportunities of higher productivity from upland areas which are beyond the coverage of the major irrigation systems. Our irrigable lands suitable for rice are three million hectares. The balance of our farm lands (seven million hectares) are classified as UPLANDS. Some of these uplands can benefit from irrigation.

Apart from the 9,230 IAs organized by NIA there are a few hundred small water irrigation systems associations (SWISAs) organized under the auspices of the BSWM-DA. The small irrigation systems include the small water impounding projects (SWIPs), small diversion dams (SDDs), and shallow tube wells (STWs).

Since 2001 BSWM has built 114 SWIPs and SDDs and distributed 426 STWs providing water to 8,100 hectares and benefitting 5,500 farmers. These small irrigation units have enabled farmers to grow two crops of rice each year plus a third crop of annual fruits and vegetables. They are also able to raise fish, mainly tilapia. The reservoirs serve as well for recreation and sports and as local tourism destinations. Although the service areas of small irrigation systems are less, they are quicker and cheaper to install.

Congress ought to allot more funds for small irrigation systems (and their SWISAs) for the benefit of upland farmers who are more numerous and even poorer than the lowland rice farmers.

This needed and timely re-direction of attention to irrigation development (and hopefully to the IAs which will manage them), fit well with the initiative of DA Secretary Emmanuel Piñol into solar-powered irrigation.

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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).

For any feedback , email eqjavier@yahoo.com.

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