By Amor Larrosa and Desserie Dionio, Panahon TV Reporters
Gunshots echoed as protesters hurled stones against the police. Blasts of water cannons were directed toward rallyists, who ran for their lives amidst deafening screams. According to reports, such was the scene that unfolded in Kidapawan in Cotabato that took the media by storm on the first day of April – an incident that would later be tagged by others as “Bigas, Hindi Bala.”
On March 29, 500 El Niño-stricken farmers and agricultural workers staged a rally in front of the National Food Authority (NFA) in Kidapawan City to ask the government for rice rations and aid after the El Niño had dried up their crops, leaving them penniless, in debt and hungry.
The local government agreed to talk to the farmers, but on March 30, their numbers rose to 6,000, allowing them to occupy the highway. A couple of days later, the event led to a violent dispersal, killing two farmers and one civilian, with more than a hundred protesters and members of the police wounded, and 80 farmers missing.
TWO SIDES OF THE COIN
Last April 7, the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights held a hearing in Davao City as some of farmers who were still recovering from injuries could not travel to Manila.
During the session, a farmer named Arlyn Oti Aman recalled how she, along with colleagues, were treated violently. “We went here to ask for food, but they looked upon us as like dogs, like animals.”
Meanwhile, the Philippine National Police (PNP) claimed that they have proof that the demonstrators initiated the violence. North Cotabato Chief Police Senior Supt. Alexander Tagum said that maximum tolerance was implemented during the outbreak of violence. He also showed an aerial video of the incident showing that cops were not raising their batons.
There are always two sides to every story, but what’s certain is that one of the factors that sparked the Kidapawan violence is the El Niño. This phenomenon aggravated the Dry Season in Mindanao, threatening food security.
WHAT IS EL NIÑO?
El Niño is characterized by the unusual warming of the ocean or the unusual rise in sea surface temperature (SST). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the term El Niño was originally recognized by fishermen off the coast of South America as the appearance of uncommon warm water in the Pacific Ocean.
“El Niño” is also a Spanish term meaning “Little Boy” or “Christ child” because this phenomenon usually arrives around Christmas.
As early as 2014, PAGASA warned the public about the possible threat of El Niño, which was expected to bring below-normal rainfall patterns and higher air temperatures. Though the average number of tropical cyclones could still be normal, PAGASA stated that the El Niño could affect the cyclones’ movement and intensity, causing them to be stronger and more erratic.
EL NIÑO SETS IN
On March 11, 2015, PAGASA confirmed the ongoing El Niño in a press statement.
In the same month, the Dry Spell started to affect farmlands and water sources in Kidapawan City. The veterinary office in the city also reported deaths of hogs and cows because of the severe heat. The city office also received reports that some farm animals had weakened, possibly due to heat stroke.
After enduring the effects of El Niño for months, North Cotabato was placed under a state of calamity on January 2016. Thousands of hectares of farmlands and millions of crops like rice, corn, cacao, and other high-value crops were affected.
Provinces that are vulnerable to the effects of El Niño are mostly in Mindanao, mainly because of its location. According to PAGASA-Climate Monitoring and Prediction Section (CLIMPS) Chief Mr. Anthony Lucero, areas which are at the nearest distance from the equator normally experience the highest temperatures and least precipitation.
“Kapag kasi may El Niño, nagkakaroon ng reversal of winds—5 degrees north and 5 degrees south of equator. Humihina ‘yung effect ng Easterlies pagdating sa part na ‘yun. So walang moisture, wala ring ulan,” Lucero said.
This April, North Cotabato remains to be on the list of areas that are more likely to experience drought. Drought is defined by three consecutive months of way-below normal rainfall condition, wherein the average rainfall is reduced by 60%.
WERE WE PREPARED FOR EL NIÑO?
In the Senate Committee hearing, Cotabato Governor Emmylou Taliño Mendoza stressed that the provincial government took El Niño-mitigating measures after being warned by PAGASA.
Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Proceso Alcala belied reports that farmers in Mindanao have become hungry because of the government’s failure to prepare for El Niño. According to Alcala, when PAGASA declared a mild El Niño, the DA immediately provided P2.666 billion worth of mitigation assistance as early as 2015. He also said that P979.9 million worth of assistance was released from January to March 2016, including the provision of water pumps.
According to Alcala, DA’s projection of palay harvest loss due to El Niño for 2016 to date is 970,000 metric tons; “But the actual loss was 203,000 metric tons, meaning that the government has implemented the necessary interventions.”
From April to July this year, DA targets to distribute a total of 89,260 bags of rice varieties and seeds; 80,000 kilograms of soil ameliorant/zinc sulphate; and 5,000 bags of organic fertilizer for distribution to affected farmers.
As early as January, Pasig City Representative Roman Romulo called for the administration to disclose how it intended to spend the multimillion-peso budget for El Niño mitigation.
Likewise, in his statement during the hearing, Majority Floor Leader Alan Peter Cayetano condemned the administration for its failure to immediately release funds to mitigate the effects of El Niño.
“Enough of excuses and lies: we actually have P45 billion worth of funds in 2016 that may be used for the projects that will curb the impact of this crisis. If the Palace wanted to resolve this, they can… why are there so many farmers who are still starving and facing poverty?” said Cayetano.
EL NIÑO AND CLIMATE CHANGE
In an interview with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Atty. Gia Ibay said climate change does not cause El Niño, but the frequency of El Niño occurrence may be linked to it.
Lucero affirms this, saying it is a common misconception that El Niño is caused by climate change. He added that though El Niño is a natural occurrence, climate change may worsen its effects.
“Sa nakikita natin in the recent years, dumadami at dumadalas ang pagkakaroon ng disasters dahil sa climate change – kasama dun ‘yung drought. Ang climate change, connected sa pagtaas ng temperatura ng mundo. So kapag nagkaroon ng El Niño, lumalala ang effect. Mas mainit at lalong nagkukulang sa ulan,” Lucero explained.
According to Lucero, the current El Niño is still categorized as “strong” but is expected to weaken in the next few months. Probably by the end of July, our country may experience a “neutral” climatic condition.
AWARENESS + PREPAREDNESS
To date, the PNP has started its own inquiry on the Kidapawan dispersal, but there are calls for the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to conduct a parallel probe to ensure an impartial and independent investigation.
Meanwhile, in Senator Loren Legarda’s press release, she said that this incident would not have happened if necessary interventions addressed the impact of El Niño on farmers and communities.
“…the government can no longer deny the link between climate change and development. What we saw is just one of the human faces of climate change and our farmers, who did not cause this phenomenon, is among the direct victims of its impacts,” Legarda stated.
With the increasing frequency of El Niño and extreme weather events, it is evident that we are already facing a serious challenge. We have all been warned about the development of an El Niño phenomenon, but awareness is not enough without preparedness. It is the state’s responsibility to see to it that measures are effectively carried out from planning to implementation, making sure that the very backbone of the country’s food security—the farmers—benefit from them.
Panahon TV Blog: Decrypting the Dry Spell
Panahon TV Blog: El Niño getting stronger, threatens PH until 2016
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)