Change is coming: The politics of El Niño

Airah Cadiogan

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'Moving forward, there are key things that the new government must act on, bearing in mind the welfare of communities that have been suffering the most from inaction and incoherence'

This year, the campaign period for the Philippines’ national and local elections coincided with the occurrence of one of the strongest El Niño ever recorded. The climactic phenomenon has caused desperate droughts and sparked food protests in Mindanao. The election spending ban, which prohibits local officials from distributing relief, has frustrated efforts to stave off a humanitarian crisis.

Now, as newly-elected officials celebrate their victories, line up their advisors, and decide on their priorities, we need to remind them to act on what we have learned from this latest disaster.

(READ: What is El Niño?)

Despite the ‘decaying’ of the current El Niño, the worst is far from over: drought-affected communities continue to feel the impacts and will need more support as they recover their livelihoods and prepare for the predicted La Niña.

Local realities

Just as the campaign was about to begin in February 2016, I visited towns of North Cotabato province, one of the first local government units (LGU) to declare a state of calamity due to El Niño-caused droughts (described as three consecutive months of way below normal rainfall) in Mindanao.

What I saw then confirmed my worst fear of a creeping crisis: cracked soil, rat-infested farmlands, dried-up streams, and withered vegetables. The farmers I spoke to feared for their families in the coming months. The failed harvests and sheer lack of alternative sources of income meant they would have to rely on rice rations from the local government – if they arrived – in order to survive.

EL NIÑO. A farmer stands next to a stream in barangay Payong-Payong, Pigcawayan municipality, North Cotabato in February 2016. The drought has left this stream, the village's main source of water, nearly dried up. All photos from Oxfam

“We need rice, but they’ve been offering seeds,” said Oscar Bestes, 58, from Bao village in Alamada municipality. “We have yet to receive any notice of rice distribution. Maybe with the elections coming soon, we will receive more grasya [blessings].”

Joel Cobacha, 49, from Payong-Payong village in Pigcawayan municipality shared: “With this El Niño, the only thing to look forward to is the elections. Candidates and political parties hire local operators to set up events, so some people will at least have a kind of job.”

Barely two months after my visit, thousands of hunger-stricken farmers in Kidapawan City, the administrative capital of North Cotabato, blocked a major highway to demand 15,000 sacks of rice from the provincial government. That protest ended in violence, resulting in the deaths of three people.

However tragic and avoidable the incident was, it served the purpose of bringing El Niño to the national headlines – arguably, where it should have been all those months ago if lives and livelihoods were to have been spared.

‘State of calamity’

Under a state of calamity, LGUs are permitted to access 5% of their Calamity Funds. As stated in the law, these funds can be used to purchase goods and services to “prevent imminent danger to, or loss of, life or property.” Urgent actions typically include food aid distribution, emergency livelihoods, and in the case of droughts, cloud seeding operations.

However, with the election spending ban in place, local authorities were at a loss as to how to respond.

“We could only hope the cloud seeding works, and offer seeds and seedlings. We know it’s not enough, but without aid from the national government, our hands are tied by our resources and the fact that the elections are coming,” said Edmundo Guleng, municipal agricultural officer of Alamada, told me in February.

FARMERS. Oscar Bestes, 58, from Bao village in Alamada municipality, stands beside the corn he has set aside for him and his family, in preparation for the drought.

In April 2016, after another visit to Sultan Kudarat, it emerged that relief efforts in different drought-affected provinces have indeed been hampered by the election ban. Also, the cloud seeding operations have failed due to unfavorable weather conditions.

“As much as we would like to help the farmers, we don’t want to lose our jobs or go to jail for violating the law,” said Cyrus Urbano, local disaster officer of Koronadal City, in a forum last April.  “We were at least hoping that the efforts of the national government agencies would meet the needs of the farmers,” he said.

Affected communities, together with humanitarian agencies, have been calling for immediate and adequate action: “We are in a complex emergency, made more complicated by this period of change in national and local leadership, but this should not stop us from finding ways to better prepare ourselves, and respond when needed, especially to slow-onset emergencies like El Niño,” said Oxfam’s Jermaine Bayas.

Moving forward

Moving forward – and away from all the finger-pointing and politicking that followed the Kidapawan incident – there are key things that the new government must act on, bearing in mind the welfare of communities that have been suffering the most from inaction and incoherence.

DROUGHT. Cracked soil in Pigcawayan municipality, North Cotabato. Farmers have had to forego planting due to the lack of rain and dried-up streams.

Firstly, immediate food and humanitarian assistance must be provided to affected families. Latest figures from the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) show nearly 200,000 farmers have been affected, with damages to crops — mostly rice, corn and high value crops— reaching P6.5 billion. The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), meanwhile, has estimated that almost half a million families have been affected.

Secondly, the sunset review of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (NDRRM) Law should be prioritized. New provisions to allow calamity-stricken LGUS to be automatically exempt from the Election Ban should be included. Concomitantly, a review of the Omnibus Election Code is imperative.

In the longer-term, there has to be an appreciation that El Niño is not just a one-off, rare climactic event. With climate change, it is predicted to intensify and become more frequent in the years to come for countries like the Philippines. The government must therefore prepare for and respond to a super El Niño with the same urgency that it does with a super typhoon.

At the international level, the government must continue to push for developed countries to provide much-needed funds to support climate-vulnerable countries like the Philippines adapt to climate change. Presently, Oxfam estimates that only around 16% of global climate finance is going towards adaptation projects. This figure should be boosted to at least 35% by 2020, and it should come from grants and other forms of financing that will not burden the country with heavy repayments. 

Overall, these recommendations are far from new; recent events have only reinforced their relevance.  In the glow of the Paris Agreement, the new government, led by the next President, must act to protect the poorest Filipinos from a future of hunger fueled by El Niño and other extreme weather events. – 

Airah T. Cadiogan is Climate Change Policy and Campaigns Officer for Oxfam in the Philippines. Oxfam is an international confederation of 17 organizations working in over 90 countries across the globe to find solutions to poverty and injustice. 


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