Philippines ‘Bracing for the Worst’ in Drought

By CARLOS H. CONDE
The New York Times
Published: February 19, 2010

MANILA — A drought in the Philippines caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon has destroyed millions of dollars worth of crops, reduced the country’s water supply and is threatening widespread blackouts as power companies contend with low water levels in hydroelectric dams, officials said Friday.

“It is such a difficult situation because we have just survived the typhoons in October that destroyed 1.5 million metric tons of rice and countless basic infrastructure,” Joel Rudinas, an undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture, said in an interview Friday. “We are bracing for the worst.”

At a press briefing on Friday at the presidential palace, Charito Planas, a spokeswoman for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, asked Filipinos to use buckets to recycle bathwater for additional purposes, such as flushing toilets.

El Niño’s damage to crops is now estimated at more than $61 million, and Mr. Rudinas said the Philippines, already the world’s largest importer of rice, has imported an additional 2.2 million metric tons because of the drought.

Nearly 400,000 acres of farmland have already been affected , and agriculture officials expect the drought to continue, perhaps until July. Growth in agriculture, targeted at 5 percent for this year, is certain to drop, according to Mr. Rudinas, who said, “The first half of the year will definitely be a downtrend.”

Mrs. Arroyo said on Tuesday that she was concerned about the fall in farmers’ income but assured Filipinos that the food supply will not suffer.

The government has begun cloud-seeding operations in hard-hit areas, particularly in the northern part of the country, and has allotted some $20 million in aid to the farm and fishing sectors in at least 14 of the country’s 80 provinces.

Two weeks ago, Mrs. Arroyo signed an order that effectively ordered the rationing of water to utility companies “to maximize the limited supply of water.” Other government measures include the drilling of more water wells and the purchase of thousands of irrigation pumps.

Some parts of the country, particularly the southern region of Mindanao, are almost certain to experience power cuts.

“There is not enough power coming from the hydro plants so we have a deficiency or shortage of power in May,” Carlito Claudio, an official with the National Grid Corp., told a House energy committee hearing this week. National Grid, a private consortium, manages most of the nation’s power transmission lines. He said hydroelectric plants on the southern island of Mindanao have almost no water reserves.

Mr. Claudio said he expects two- to three-hour blackouts every day, possibly until the national elections in May, a comment that prompted election watchdogs to urge the Commission on Elections to establish safeguards to prevent fraud. In previous elections, blackouts have often occurred while votes were being counted.

At least one lawmaker has suggested that Congress give Mrs. Arroyo emergency powers to deal with the crisis, including the authority to tap private power generators to supply additional electricity to the National Power Corp., the government-owned firm that generates much of the country’s electricity.

The Philippines suffered a severe drought in 1999 and two milder dry spells in 2004 and 2007.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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