THE BEGINNING of the year affords policymakers and executives the chance to look forward and plan for the months ahead. An urgent item on the country’s collective to-do list is preparing for the onset of the dreaded El Niño weather phenomenon.
According to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa), El Niño is characterized by unusually warm ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific regions.
El Niño significantly affects the rainfall pattern and brings about a prolonged dry spell, and has, thus, been a bane to Philippine agriculture, which remains a significant part of the domestic economy but is often a drag on overall economic growth.
The latest Pagasa outlook indicates a 60 to 90 percent chance of El Niño forming in the first and second quarters of the year.
Pagasa modelling indicates that the onset of El Niño could affect 47 provinces in Luzon and the Visayas in the first quarter.
The state weather agency, however, has yet to see signs of El Niño. According to Pagasa weather forecaster Raymond Ordinario, a drought would first persist for three consecutive months, where the rainfall would be way below normal (60 percent reduction from average), or there would be five consecutive months of below-normal rainfall condition (21 percent to 60 percent reduction from average).
Pagasa monitoring showed that villages in the town of M’lang in North Cotabato province have been experiencing a mild drought since mid-December, draining irrigation canals. Residents of Zamboanga City are also seen experiencing dwindling water supply from a filtration plant.
The bottomline is that El Niño will delay the onset of the rainy season, which could affect the production of water intensive crops such as rice and corn.
As it was, the agriculture sector was fraught with challenges in 2018, slowing much more than expected last year because of severe weather disturbances, according to Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol.
On Thursday, Piñol told reporters that based on preliminary data, the farm sector grew by a mere 1 percent in 2018, which was worse than the projected 2.5-percent decline. This was down significantly from the 4-percent growth recorded in 2017.
With El Niño expected to occur within the first half of this year, the sector would be hard-pressed to make a recovery.
This early, the Agriculture department should lay down and communicate to its stakeholders, as well as the general public, specific measures to mitigate the effects of this weather phenomenon.
The sector, which is the main source of food on our table and accounts for a major segment of the Philippine economy, cannot continue to be a drag on growth; the government must take the long view and make critical investments in agriculture infrastructure to make it less vulnerable to extreme weather disturbances such as the terrible El Niño.