It’s getting hot in here!

Best Practices - Brian Poe Llamanzares - The Philippine Star

The heat lately has been impossible to ignore. El Niño looms over the Philippines. It brings with it a host of extreme weather events, such as drought drastically decreasing rainfall by up to 60 percent and scorching heat waves that are projected to persist across the entire archipelago until May 2024. We are all witnesses to its terrible inescapable effects. Sweltering heat surpassing 42 degrees Celsius in certain places, for instance, has suspended classes across 5,000 Philippine schools in April 2024’s first week, interrupting the education of our 3.6 million students. Cebu City declared a state of water crisis. Government agencies state that water rationing in Metro Manila is not yet needed as supplies remain sufficient for now, but nonetheless forewarn it may be on our horizon. If we fail to formulate sustainable solutions and bungle implementation, then we necessarily compromise Philippine economic, energy, food and water security.

El Niño economics must be carefully considered as its effects are pervasive and potent. Like the temperature, March 2024 inflation rate similarly rose. Government agencies highlight that the 3.7 percent inflation rate is far lower than last year’s 7.6 percent in March 2023, and falls within our 2 percent to 4 percent inflation target range. The devils, however, are in the details.

While the March 2024 inflation rate is at 3.7 percent overall, the Philippine Statistics Authority-reported inflation rate for the bottom 30 percent of income households is at a painful 4.6 percent. Filipinos are hurting, and the poorest are bearing the worst of it. It is thus no wonder that recent surveys reveal that Filipinos’ top concern right now is perceived uncontrolled inflation. “Food and alcoholic beverages” continue to be the main contributor to overall inflation, contributing 80.6 percent.

Among the food groups, 103.2 percent share was attributable to “cereals and cereal products” which includes bread, flour and – most importantly – rice. Currently, Department of Agriculture Secretary Laurel himself admits that rice prices are not expected to go down due to El Niño’s effects, estimated at a staggering P2.76 billion. At such a critical juncture, it must be recognized that the single most crucial element of sustainable rice production is water.

As a multi-purpose dam for irrigation, hydroelectric power, flood control and Southeast Asia’s largest, Pantabangan Dam’s role cannot be overstated. PAGASA cautions that El Niño may cause Pantabangan to drop to its critical level by the end of April 2024. Pantabangan supplies the irrigation needs of Nueva Ecija, which our out-of-school-due-to-sweltering-heat Filipino school children know in their textbooks as the “Rice Bowl of the Philippines.” Less than optimal levels of irrigation for agriculture augurs lower quality and/or less yield.

No less than President Marcos himself recognized the Philippines’ water crisis – and its extent. In 2023, acknowledging inter alia “the fragmented water and sanitation sector, increasing demand for water due to population and economic growth, impacts of climate change,” the President by executive fiat created a Water Resource Management Office, under the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources.

Our Senate office hailed it as a “timely intervention” and hoped that it would prepare the institutionalization of our nation’s efforts to ensure water security for all through, among others, a Department of Water. In this regard, our Senate office reiterates our assertion for the urgent need to pass Senate Bill No. 102 filed on July 7, 2022 during the 19th Congress or the “National Water Resource Management Act” into law.

It is also hoped that learnings from our experiences in the President’s newly reactivated and reconstituted Task Force El Niño, an inter-agency body tasked to lead the revision, coordination and implementation of the Strategic El Niño National Action Plan, can be integrated into legislative debates and be part of our national statutory solutions to the water crisis.

The El Niño Online Platform under the President’s Executive Order No. 53 (Series of 2024), envisioned to serve as a “centralized repository” for relevant data, is a welcome innovation. While still in its starting stages, it sets the stage for a truly open, technological and evidence-based approach towards water security. It can help in spreading issue awareness, conservation efforts, data sets and planning. It is a step in the right direction.

Water service providers’ intensified operations on deep wells all over Metro Manila and Rizal province, to meet the burgeoning daily needs of millions of Filipinos, are timely interventions as well. Deep well operations ease the pressure off Angat Dam and augments water sources for consumers. Angat Dam’s role is incredibly important since it supplies more than 90 percent of Metro Manila’s potable water requirements and over 27,000 hectares of rice farms in Bulacan and Pampanga Provinces. El Niño has decreased Angat Dam’s reserves to below normal high water level, barely hovering above the minimum operating level of 180 meters. While such deep well operations help, it alone is not enough to solve our heightening water woes.

On top of it all, it bears emphasis that an estimated 11 million Filipino families still lack access to clean water. It is one of the great paradoxes in our Philippines; an archipelago surrounded by boundless water but still falling short of bringing clean water to all Filipinos.

National water management is inextricably intertwined with national wealth management. El Niño reminds us of such indubitable fact. Due to the adverse consequences of climate change on the Philippines, managing our water resources prudently, systematically and sustainably can mean either the ceaseless continuation of a vicious cycle of descent to insecurity or the charting of a better course towards a virtuous cycle for Philippine economic, energy, food and water security.

It’s clear that the most effective interventions of our government so far are those which take a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach. It’s clear that much has yet to be done. It’s clear that it’s getting hot in here!

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