climate change

[OPINION] Have we learned from the 2015-16 El Niño?

John Leo C. Algo

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[OPINION] Have we learned from the 2015-16 El Niño?

Marian Hukom/Rappler

'The rules for the use of the Quick Response Fund, which is usually designated for post-disaster response, should be adjusted to enable their usage for responding to slow onset events'

The year 2023 could end up being the hottest year on record so far. 

The Philippines not only faces higher temperatures as a result of global warming; it is also anticipating another warming phenomenon that could occur by the end of the year.

The current warmest year is 2016, which was also the last time there was a strong El Niño episode. Its impacts on the Philippines has not been forgotten, especially by farmers. And they should not be forgotten, either.  

In anticipation of this, the current administration has prepared a plan to lessen the impact of this phenomenon on the agricultural sector and its productivity. 

Yet the question remains: how can the Philippines show it has learned its lessons from the loss and damage inflicted by the 2016 El Niño?

What happened back then?

While there was an El Niño that occurred in 2018-19, it was classified as a weak event. The government needs to closely examine the 2016 episode that was far more devastating.

The resulting droughts caused P15.2-billion worth of damage, covering more than 556,000 hectares of farming lands. It resulted in multiple provinces, cities, and municipalities being placed under a state of calamity, with 11 of the top 15 most impacted provinces in Mindanao. 

Within one of these provinces, North Cotabato, took place the infamous Kidapawan incident. During this event, a protest by 500 farmers in front of the National Food Authority Office ended in a violent dispersal, resulting in at least three deaths and 116 injured persons. 

The protesters demanded the release of sacks of rice and other forms of aid from the provincial government, yet the rules during the then-election season prohibited it from doing so. While there are no polls happening until 2025, it still points to a need to reexamine existing protocols to provide assistance to heavily-affected communities during times of potential disaster.

This crisis also caused water insecurity with adverse impacts beyond the agricultural sector. A lack of clean and adequate water supply became a common occurrence on many communities. There was also a decline in hydropower generation and limitations in energy supply, especially in Mindanao. 

The 2015-16 El Niño episode is perhaps the most infamous example of how slow onset events can negatively affect the Philippines at a national scale. Unlike sudden onset events like typhoons, a slow onset event like a drought does not occur as frequently or rapidly, yet their impacts can be more destructive. Evidence showed that authorities back then demonstrated a lack of capacity to implement policy responses to such issues.

It is alarming that many of the issues that became prominent during this disaster, namely food security, water security, energy security, and the plight of farming communities, still remain among the most critical of today. This points to the failure of the previous administration to implement long-term programs to address these issues that would worsen poverty and hinder our pursuit of sustainable development. It is something that the current leadership cannot afford to replicate. 

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Have we learned?

The Department of Agriculture recently announced its plan to deal with the upcoming El Niño, which includes the use of the alternate wetting and drying, small-scale irrigation projects, cloud seeding, and irrigation scheduling. The use of drought-resistant crops, organic fertilizers, and adjusting the planting calendar are among the options to maximize productivity in the coming months.

While these are necessary measures to deal with the needs of the agricultural sector, what happened years ago clearly showed that current climate and disaster governance has to be reformed to enable a more effective response to slow onset events like droughts.

To more effectively address the needs of farmers that would be affected by a moderate-to-strong El Niño, available funding sources should be made more accessible. Removing bureaucratic barriers would allow for a timelier disbursement and mobilization of available resources to avoid incidences like in Kidapawan.

For instance, the rules for the use of the Quick Response Fund, which is usually designated for post-disaster response, should be adjusted to enable their usage for responding to slow onset events. In a similar way, making the little-used People’s Survival Fund more accessible to highly-vulnerable communities should help in increasing long-term capacities to adapt and be more resilient to future climate change impacts. 

Mechanisms for coordination among national and local government units have to be clarified and strengthened to avoid or minimize potential loss and damage. For example, giving local and/or national government agencies the power to declare a state of imminent calamity should trigger the implementation of measures to avoid crop losses and reduce vulnerabilities within the agricultural sector.

More resources must be allotted to advance climate and disaster science in the Philippines, especially at the local level. As part of its plan, the Department of Agriculture, in coordination with PAGASA, local officials, experts, and other stakeholders, must ensure that the measures in its plan are appropriate for the areas in which they would be use. 

Translating existing studies on how projected temperature and rainfall changes affect agriculture and hydropower sectors into localized impacts is crucial for an anticipatory approach to reducing climate and disaster risks. Informing and educating local stakeholders, especially the most vulnerable communities and sectors, is also vital to reducing loss and damage.

When it comes to the climate crisis, there is no bigger irony than a farmer that feeds an entire nation who cannot feed himself. At a time when this issue has never been more relatable and evident to every Filipino, can we turn this irony into a mere remnant of the past? –

John Leo Algo is the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines and a member of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas and the Youth Advisory Group for Environmental and Climate Justice under the UNDP in Asia and the Pacific. He is a climate and environment journalist since 2016. 

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