Water shortage, rice imports and ‘tongpat’

BY MARLEN V. RONQUILLO

Water shortage has been a national constant. In 1998, the water level at the major multipurpose dams dropped so low that the dams cut down by more than one half their water releases to rice farms. Over one million metric tons of rice had to be imported—the first time in our sorry rice-buying history that imports exceeded the one million mark.

The massive rice buying that ingloriously started in 1998 became the national template—well into the end of that century and into the new millennium. For the years 2009 to 2010, over 3.6 million metric tons had been imported, a reckless rice-ordering spree that some claimed had been driven by “commissions.”

So, here is the gist of the importation story: Water shortage and the subsequent failure of the multipurpose dams to provide irrigation water to the service areas—which in turn resulted in failed rice production—provided the convenient cover for these massive importations. And a convenient excuse for the “commissioners” to do their thing. There are talks of a hefty “tongpat” for every metric ton of rice imported from the usual suspects.

Long before “tongpat” was applied in the NBN-ZTE scam by whistle-blower Jun Lozada, it was already a byword within the rice-importing circles.

Crooks in government, to put it briefly, never let a crisis to waste. A crisis situation is good as any to line their pockets.

The policy discussion of the current shortage should be placed on a broader perspective by the new government. Because the previous ones treated it as a non-emergency. It is God’s will. So what the heck can we do except accept our sufferings and . . . import more rice.

Since 2007, the massive rice buying spree of the country has been unsettling the rice market. For the first time, rice prices in the global market peaked to over $1,000 in 2007. We had been blamed—rightfully—then. Without remorse, and guilt-feeling, we are still doing that now.

It is all too clear that the harsh consequences of a water shortages—and the intemperate and indiscreet actions the government crooks have been doing under its name—have spilled overseas. The importations have kept our grains suppliers happy. The rest of the rice-short world, meanwhile, forced to compete with our inflated tenders for imported rice, have been cursing us and questioning our motives for importing more rice than what we actually need.

OK, then, what can we do, at least from the farming (and rice supply) equation? Other than the usual, but utterly necessary, re-greening of our dying watershed areas so water would still gush in from the spots of green into the major dams during the critical dry months, let’s do the following.

First—the most urgent—is the construction of a network of small water impounding projects, or SWIPs, across the farming areas. This will ease the pressure on the major multipurpose dams to supply to all—potable water needs, power needs, irrigation water—during the dry, parched months.

The SWIPs can take care of the irrigation needs, removing one burden off the multipurpose dams.

A complementary initiative can be done on the quick: The development of a rice strain that requires less water, meaning a truly tropical rice variety for the upland farms and the dry season. Such strains may not yield much but still the output from them would be a great boost to rice supply during the dry season.
We can call it the “rice of summer” or any other name. But a rice strain that can survive the most brutal drought has to be developed. Filipino rice scientists, given the right environment, can do that.

The new administration has to review the major dam policy. The dams dry up fast during the summer months, rendering them partly crippled. During the rainy season, they abet murder and mayhem, like what their water releases did during Ondoy and Pepeng.

More, the dams are costly, built on loans from multilateral institutions. Or built on turn-key schemes but with full government guarantee.

Across the globe, even in countries with the traditional love affairs with the giant dams (China is an example ), there is a major re-assessment of the dam-building policies.

We are often short on water. But we have more than enough state agencies dealing with water issues.
Rep. Ben Evardone of Eastern Samar ‘s lone district, has given Manila Times this initial list:

There is the MWSS and there is the Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA). Despite the privatization of Greater Metro Manila’s water supply, the MWSS still exist, for what purposes we do not know. The LWUA is in charge of local water utilities.

There is an agency in charge of current and potential areas that can be developed into water sources—the National Water Resources Board.

The Department of Agriculture (DA) has two water agencies: the National Irrigation Administration and the Bureau of Soil and Water Management.

The DPWH has a small unit taking care of springs and other marginal sources of potable water. The
Laguna Lake Development Authority oversees the largest possible supplier for water for Metro Manila, the Laguna de bay.

Rep. Ben Evardone says he is in the process of ferreting out in the vast bureaucracy other water agencies hidden somewhere, whose functions are basically overlapping and superfluous.

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