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Building more small irrigation units to bring immediate and enduring relief to rice farmers


Dr. Emil Q. Javier

Dr. Emil Q. Javier

The rice tariffication act (RTA) has two major consequences: 1) lower price of rice to consumers, and 2) loss of income to rice farmers. The former remains to be seen but the latter is immediate and certain. From a high of P21.00 per kilogram farm gate price of palay, the average farm gate price of palay is now down to P17.00 per kilogram and in many places, even less.

To make up for this loss of income of farmers, the RTA provided for free farm equipment, seeds, subsidized credit, and intensified farmers’ training and extension support.

This column underscores the value of small irrigation units which are made up of small water impounding projects, small diversion dams, and shallow tube wells, as interventions which will bring immediate and enduring relief to our beleaguered rice farmers.

The adequate and timely delivery of water is the single most important factor in rice cultivation. Lowland rice fields with irrigation routinely produce 5-6 tons palay per hectare while rainfed lowland rice fields yield 3-4 tons per hectare. Upland rice (not puddled) are worst off with only 2–3 tons palay per hectare.

Free seeds and farm equipment bring immediate relief to rice farmers but these interventions are temporary. Small irrigation units like small pond reservoirs and small diversion dams bring immediate relief as well but since small reservoirs and diversion dams with proper maintenance will be there for a long time, they are more enduring and with minimal recurring costs to farmers.

Actually the need for irrigation is accorded the highest priority in our development programs for agriculture. Year in, year out, the budget of the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), which is in the order of P20 billion-P30 billion per year, dwarfs those of all other agencies in the Department of Agriculture (DA). To date, we must have invested close to P800 billion in irrigation.

However, the bulk of the allocations have been for the construction of huge multi-purpose dams for irrigation, power generation, and domestic use and to a less extent on dedicated communal irrigation systems which are still relatively large.

Much less attention had been devoted to small irrigation units whose service areas are small but which are cheaper and quicker to build.

Higher incomes from crop diversification

Irrigation raises and stabilizes the yield of rice. But even more importantly the availability of water opens the opportunity for multiple cropping and crop diversification. Rice farmers who are able to introduce into their cropping calendar the growing of other crops like pechay, mustard, garlic, onion, melons, mungbean, tomato, chili pepper, eggplant and ornamentals (also tobacco) make much more income from these other crops than from the main crop of rice.
However, the large irrigation systems are designed for rice and are ill-suited for the frequent and intermittent water requirements of the other crops. In order to effectively practice multiple cropping, the farmers need to have full control over the volume and timing of delivery of water which is possible with small irrigation units. Thus even in the service areas of the large national and communal irrigations systems, there is a niche for small irrigation units.


The above arguments lead to four salient recommendations namely:

  1. To prioritize shallow tube wells and water pumps in the menu of free farm machines and equipment under the Rice Tariffication Act.

2)  To raise the allocation of the Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM) for construction of small irrigation units for rainfed lowland and upland farmers who are even poorer than those in the irrigated lowlands.

3) For NIA, as well, to embed small irrigation units in the national and communal irrigation systems under its administration.

4) For the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech), Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), Agricultural Credit Policy Council (ACPC), Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP), and the DA marketing unit to converge their activities in the service areas of BSWM and NIA to promote multiple cropping and crop diversification to fully exploit our investments in irrigation.

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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