Reverting the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) from the Office of the President (OP) to the Department of Agriculture (DA) is an important matter that may have, inadvertently, slipped out of the agenda for fine-tuning the country’s food security program. Should not the department charged with the production of a water-dependent crop have authority over the agency that ensures that such farms have enough water?
The NIA had been under the DA for many years in 2014, it was placed under the Office of the President together with the National Food Authority, the Philippine Coconut Authority, and the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority. The four agencies were supervised by a Presidential Assistant on Food Security and Agricultural Modernization. Three of the agencies were returned to the DA in 2018; the NIA was left behind without any explanation.
Simple facts support reversion:
• The DA is responsible for agriculture. Rice is the main staple consumed by about 80% of the population. Palay (unmilled rice) is the top agricultural commodity with the value of palay production in 2019 making up one-third of the total value of crop production. (PSA: “Performance of Agriculture Fourth Quarter 2019,” January 2020, p. 9)
• About 65% of the physical area devoted to rice is irrigated while the rest is rain-fed. About 70% of palay comes from irrigated ecosystems while 30% is from rain-fed areas (DA: The Philippines Grows Rice: A Commodity Digest, June 2016, p. 11).
• The Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) highlighted access to irrigation water as the major driver of farm productivity along with adoption of quality seeds, modern technologies, and farm mechanization (DA-AFID, “DA, NIA to Partner to Attain 2020 Rice Production Target,” April 20, 2020).
Organizationally, The Agriculture Department’s frontline managers, the Regional Executive Directors, need to:
• Oversee water supply schedules and sufficiency for timely distribution of inputs, land preparation, and planting activities;
• Coordinate with the National Irrigation Administration and irrigators’ associations (IAs) to ensure the maintenance of irrigation systems; and,
• Set targets for cropping intensity, yield, and cost of production per system.
While the logic is simple, the organization involved is complex, considering the NIA’s involvement with the same farmers in the same areas that the DA, its agencies and LGU partners serve.
The NIA, as of Dec. 31, 2018, operated and maintained 242 national irrigation systems (NISes) and 8,812 communal irrigation systems (CISes). The service area was reported to be 1,920,563 hectares (ha): 876,537 ha under NISes, 688,258 ha under CISes, 182,504 ha under privately established irrigation systems, and 173,264 ha assisted by other government agencies. The NIA was dealing with 9,230 IAs that included 1,123,246 farmer-beneficiaries cultivating 1,388,558 ha (NIA: Annual Report for 2018).
The Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM), a DA agency, is responsible for small-scale irrigation projects (SSIPs) like small water impounding projects, small diversion dams, shallow tube wells, and small farm reservoirs. The 540 SSIPs provide supplemental irrigation for about 8,100 hectares of rain-fed areas appropriate for palay farming. BSWM and NIA coordination may be mutually beneficial.
Operating as a member of the DA family has obvious advantages:
• Irrigation systems and each system’s respective IAs provide a physical base for planning the development of distinct production units. System-by-system operational coordination will be needed to establish progressive rice production areas:
a. Developing local seed growers, in coordination with PhilRice, in order to boost production and facilitate replanting in case a typhoon damages the crop;
b. Continuing farmer field school training, in coordination with the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI) and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA);
c. Promoting the use of farm machinery, organizing farm workers into farm service associations where practical, providing training on use and maintenance of machines, setting up machine pool stations, and utilizing common facilities, in coordination with the Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech);
d. Facilitating production credit and crop insurance, in coordination with LANDBANK and the Philippine Crop Insurance Corp.; and
e. Updating the Registry System for Basic Sectors in Agriculture, in coordination with local government units and the DA.
• The 2019 Rice Tariffication Law (RTL) created a Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund and allocated P10 billion for DA agencies annually for six years on top of their GAA (General Appropriations Act) budget:
a. P5 billion for assistance regarding farm machinery through PhilMech;
b. P3 billion for certified seeds through PhilRice;
c. P1 billion for rice extension through ATI, TESDA, PhilRice and PhilMech; and,
d. P1 billion for production credit through LANDBANK and the DBP.
These amounts were programmed to benefit the top 57 palay-producing provinces which include 2,441,495 ha of irrigated land and 141,487 ha of rain-fed areas. With 94.52% of the targeted area irrigated, coordination with NIA is crucial and more easily accomplished if NIA were to be part of the DA family rather than kept under OP (Data from DA Assistant Secretary Andrew B. Villacorta, COVID-19 Action Network Forum on DA and PhilMech, June 9, 2020).
It is impossible to quantify potential gains of NIA’s reversion. What is clear is that irrigated farms produce higher yields than rain-fed farms — 4.43 metric tons (MT)/hectare (ha) as against 3.13 MT/ha — and most farms in irrigated areas grow two crops a year.
At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting world rice production and trade, the country must do what it can to boost production. Incentivizing this requires not only helping farmers to raise yields but also making sure that increased production is profitable for them, lowering their production costs, earning additional income from other crops or activities, and improving the quality of life in the countryside.
One example of cost reduction was the scrapping of irrigation fees in 2018. This was appreciated by farmers because it resulted in additional income, but farmers continued to complain about extremely low farmgate prices for palay in 2019 due to over-importation of rice in 2017-2019 and the ill-timed Rice Tariffication Law.
To avert the deterioration of an irrigation system due to lost revenues for NIA from the irrigation fees it used for its upkeep, the responsibility was shifted to the IAs which were offered monetary rewards for maintaining the system and preserving the service area.
Food security issues and problems require timely review as implementation progresses. Policy coherence may be achieved through a document like IATF Resolution No. 24 but operational coordination should be facilitated by organizational realignment. Reverting the NIA from OP to DA may well be on the list of items for urgent decision.
Now retired, Sally and Gerry Bulatao were associated with the Federation of Free Farmers in the 1970s and earned Master in Public Administration degrees from the Harvard Kennedy School in the 1990s. Sally Bulatao has worked with IBON Databank, the National Dairy Authority, and the Department of Agriculture. Gerry Bulatao has had stints in the Department of Agrarian Reform and LANDBANK.