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El Niño event seen worst since 1998

Posted on August 26, 2015

THE GOVERNMENT expects nearly all the country’s 81 provinces by yearend to feel the brunt of a dry spell from the current El Niño episode that is seen to be the worst since the 1997-1998 event, the Department of Science and Technology (DoST) said in an article posted on its Web site yesterday.

The government expects the country to feel the impact of El Niño from next month to May 2016, at worst. -- Bloomberg
“Some 79 provinces will be hit by El Niño before 2015 ends,” the article quoted Mario G. Montejo, secretary of the DoST that oversees the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), as saying in Ozamiz City last Aug. 20 during the first leg of the Science Nation Tour in Northern Mindanao.

“The El Niño phenomenon will be at its worst this year, worse [sic] since 1997.”

Mr. Montejo said that, starting next month, 12 provinces will begin to experience dry conditions “that are below normal.”

“By October, dry spell and drought conditions will affect 29 provinces and, by the end of the year, the number will rise to 79,” Mr. Montejo said.

The list of affected provinces was not immediately available as of press time.

The Oceanic Niño Index used by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to track El Niño and La Niña events that are marked by warming and cooling, respectively, of the Pacific Ocean classified the 1997-1998 episode as “very strong.” It was then followed by successive weaker bouts, the last one being the “moderate” 2009-2010 episode.

Philippine Statistics Authority data show gross domestic product (GDP) growth slipping from 5.85% in 1996 to 5.19% in 1997 and then worsening to a 0.58% contraction in 1998.

A June 2000 study conducted by the Asia Pacific Disaster Management Center, Inc. for the United Nations Environment Program and the National Center for Atmospheric Research then noted -- citing government reports -- that while the economy weathered the financial crisis to grow in 1997, “GDP contraction in 1998 was caused by the 6.6% drop in agricultural production and the decline in construction and construction-related manufacturing by 9.5%,” even as it clarified that “the El Niño event was not solely to blame as the Asian financial crisis contributed to its negative effects.”

“El Niño caused negative impacts [sic] on agricultural outputs in the first three quarters of 1998,” the study recalled. “Palay, as well as other cash crops like coconut and sugarcane posted double-digit declines in the fourth quarter.”

The 1997-1998 El Niño event that raged from June 1997 to August 1998 also saw Metro Manila’s potable water supply cut by 10% and daily service shortened by four hours, the study noted.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio M. Balisacan had told lawmakers in a briefing on the proposed P3.002-trillion 2016 national budget in the Senate earlier this month that the government was watching farm damage from an intensifying El Niño and its impact on national output, which is targeted to grow by 7-8% this year.

But the Philippine Statistics Authority-Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (PSA-BAS) reported last Aug. 14 that farm production -- which contributes a tenth to GDP -- contracted by 0.37% last quarter due to crop damage from “intense heat”, compared to 1.78% in January-March and the 2.73% seen a year ago.

The government is scheduled to report this Thursday second-quarter GDP growth that is widely expected to have picked up from an over-three-year-low 5.2% in January-March on the back of significantly improved state spending that has otherwise constantly weighed on economic expansion.

Actual production of palay -- or unmilled rice that contributes about a fifth to total farm production -- slipped 0.7% to 8.32 million metric tons (MT) last semester from 8.38 million MT in 2014’s comparable six months, while corn output dropped 2.8% to 3.38 million MT from 3.48 million MT in the same periods.

The problem does not end there.

The same agency said that “unrealized plantings of palay for the third-quarter harvest due to the late onset of the rainy season and insufficient supply of irrigation water may bring down the second-semester output,” adding that corn output is also expected to suffer.

This year, production of palay is now projected to slip by 0.6% annually to 18.86 million MT against a 20-million MT target and that of corn to fall 1.6% year-on-year to 7.64 million MT against an 8.4-million MT goal.

In his announcement last Aug. 20, Mr. Montejo assured that the government has been preparing for the worsening El Niño episode that is expected by PAGASA to last until May next year.

Agriculture Sec. Proceso J. Alcala had said earlier this month that his department was keeping its 3.3-4.3% farm production target for the year, describing last quarter’s contraction as being “small” enough to be offset by results of wider use of hybrid rice varieties that require less water as well as other government assistance to farmers.

Mr. Alcala told reporters at the sidelines of budget deliberations at the House of Representatives last Tuesday that his department has asked for more than P1 billion in additional funds to support El Niño mitigating measures.

The problem could affect households also in the form of curtailed water supply, though this remains intact for now according to water service authorities in July.

“With the projection of the lingering El Niño, the threat that there will be constraint on water supply next year is there,” Sevillo D. David, Jr., executive director of the National Water Resources Board, told reporters then.

In that same briefing, Nathaniel C. Santos, deputy administrator at the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, said supply constraints are possible because of “below normal” rainfall expected towards yearend.

“According to PAGASA, there’s a long period when we will not have enough rainfall,” Mr. Santos said.

“After that, summer will come so that will become a challenge to supply.”

Worries over El Niño have reached the highest levels of government, with President Benigno S.C. Aquino III ordering his cabinet also this month “to prepare a detailed road map for addressing the adverse effects of the El Niño phenomenon toward the end of the year and into the first four months of 2016,” Communications Secretary Herminio B. Coloma, Jr. had said in a statement last Aug. 17. -- with a report from A. M. Monzon