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Sarangani farmers go hungry in drought
El Niño brings drought to 40 per cent of the Philippines
“Now we seldom eat rice or bread, [and when we do] it’s mostly with just vegetables,” says farmer Jennie Korbo, while surveying the cracked, parched soil of what used to be a corn field in Sarangani province, Mindanao.
While the Philippines is in the midst of election fever, farmers in the south are suffering from El Niño-induced heat that is laying waste to normally productive land.
Jennie has lost her two last corn crops and is now in serious debt because of the drought.
The ribs of her two cows are clearly visible as they amble from tree to tree seeking shelter from the unrelenting sun. “I just give them water so that they feel full. They only eat the dried corn stubs from the field,” she says.
The provincial capital of Alabel in Sarangani is full of farmers like Jennie who depend on corn for their livelihood. The municipality declared a state of calamity in 2015 when the region began to feel the full impact of El Niño.
Now with an estimated 40 per cent of the country suffering drought, 11 provinces, 10 cities and 26 municipalities and barangays across the country - but mostly in Mindanao – have declared states of calamity. Some 182,000 farmers with 224,800 hectares of agricultural land have been affected by El Niño.
Local authorities struggle to respond quickly due to funding freeze
In Alabel, an estimated 5,500 hectares of land normally supporting corn – including Jennie’s 1.8-hectare rented farmland – lie unplanted since February due to the lack of water. About 500 hectares of banana plantation are also affected, municipal agriculturist Enriguito Dagupto estimates.
According to Dagupto, many of the farmers say their families are close to starvation and are waiting anxiously for assistance from the Government. “The national government has promised irrigation pumps and seeds but as of now they have not been delivered. The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) is also promising food and clothing,” says Dagupto.
The farmers’ problems are compounded by the fact that government assistance has to follow special procedures for the 45 days in the lead up to the national and local elections in May. The municipality’s emergency funds are far from sufficient to help all those in need. “We have PhP3 million (US$64,000) in the calamity fund but are allowed to use only half of it [for this drought],” Dagupto says. The rest is saved for future possible calamities.
Although Sarangani province is among the poorest in the Philippines, its fertile land provides corn, rice, banana, coconut, vegetables and fruits for the rest of the country. Since February the region has lost half of its high-value crops, according to estimates.
The national weather bureau forecasts that dry conditions in parts of Mindanao may last until July. The local officials say they can only pray for the rain to come earlier. “We are getting worried that if assistance does not arrive in time, our people will really suffer. There may be massive hunger and peace and order will be affected,” says Dagupto.
Farmers cope with hardships as they await assistance
The Government has released $98 million to help counter the impact of El Niño on agriculture, through providing seeds, fertilisers, water pumps and technical training to the affected farmers and cloud seeding and other water supply augmentation. In addition, $11 million has been made available for emergency employment assistance and another $2 million for food distribution to the affected households. Unfortunately, none has arrived to help Jennie so far.
UN agencies, the Red Cross, and international and national NGOs are supporting the authorities with emergency food security assessment, distribution of food, water and other relief items, and financial and technical assistance to the affected farming communities especially in Mindanao.
While the scorching El Niño heat continues, Jennie slips deeper into debt. She borrowed PhP30,000 ($640) for seeds and fertilizer last August. “Before, we got 250 sacks of corn from my land; the last time I only harvested 20 sacks.” In February this year she did not plant at all.
Normally Jennie would earn PhP20,000 ($430) per harvest. Now she can’t pay back her loan with its steep 10 per cent monthly interest rate. Plus she needs money to pay the rent on her farmland and food for the family. The solution is to eat less, earn a few extra dollars from ad-hoc jobs and borrow more.
Jennie’s family is consuming bananas as an alternative to their staple food of rice. Her eldest son had to drop out of school to take a job as a motorcycle driver, while other siblings earned small fees for setting up an instant photography service at local end-of-school-year ceremonies.
These, however, are not sustainable means to make the family’s ends meet, and Jennie is worried about the decreasing water level in her hand-pumped tube well. If the family runs out of potable water, she may have to borrow again, from whomever she can, even though she will probably spiral downward into debt which may take a long time to repay, even after the weather improves.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.