El Niño likely to affect supply of freshwater
BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
Weather authorities have already issued a warning on the possible occurrence of the El Niño phenomenon in the Philippines this
year. After a series of typhoons that lashed the country last year, occasional rain came but generally the weather was dry in almost all parts of the Philippines. It is expected that the dry season will extend to a much longer period, and authorities refer this condition as the El Niño phenomenon. Aside from a warm temperature that we shall expect, especially during the mid-summer, this El Niño phenomenon will tremendously affect the water supply for domestic, agricultural and industrial requirements in many areas of the country, particularly in major urban centers. In fact, there were reports that the water supply in major water reservoirs in the Philippines is already declining, and a shortage of freshwater supply may likely happen in Metro Manila. Early this year, sugarcane planters in Negros Occidental also expressed the need for a cloud seeding in the event that the dry season will continue in the next few months.
The shortage of freshwater is quite ridiculous for a tropical country like the Philippines, and seems unbelievable given the presence of numerous water bodies, such as lakes and river systems. Unfortunately, many rivers in the country started to dry up and the volume of flowing water keeps declining through the years. Even in upland areas, some residents have to walk kilometers because the sources of freshwater are getting scarce. In coastal communities, some freshwater sources are already contaminated with saltwater. Primarily, the shortage of freshwater supply is attributed to the diminishing forest cover, which serves as a watershed. Major watersheds in the Philippines are already critically denuded, and their capacity to stock water is seriously threatened. Rough estimates show that the forest cover of the Philippines is only about five million hectares out of the 30 million hectares total land area of the country. However, the remaining old growth forest is less than a million hectares and much of the formerly forested areas are already converted to other land uses. The Philippines’ annual deforestation rate is estimated at about 90,000 hectares.
Visayas is badly affected with deforestation. Except for the Samar Island that has still a sizeable forest cover left, almost all other islands in the Visayas region have been deforested. Cebu is almost completely deforested while Negros Island has barely four percent forest cover left. However, the remaining forest of Negros is already confined in a much higher elevation, because its lowland forest has been subjective to extensive logging and later on converted into agricultural and residential sites. In fact, numerous settlers are already permanently occupying the vast timberland of Negros Island.
As a consequence of the unabated deforestation, our water supply is now declining and this is a real threat, especially to our agriculture. Millions of hectares of our agricultural land are dependent on watersheds in terms of irrigation. Once the water supply would not be enough for irrigation, our agricultural productivity and even food security shall be affected, and the Philippines’ economy will likely suffer. It is even more alarming when a day comes that we shall be running out of our domestic water requirements. We are now facing two extreme conditions that are both critical to our survival. One is the imminent threat of declining freshwater supply when dry period occurs in a much longer time and on the contrary, we have overflowing water during rainy season and when typhoons come. In both situations, the forest plays a critical role to help minimize the impacts they may bring to the people and the environment, in general. Unfortunately, our remaining forests are not yet fully secured because rampant logging, slash and burn farming and forest conversion into other uses are still prevalent in many areas of the Philippines. Some forested areas are further threatened by large scale mining operations.
It is therefore very important that an integrated watershed management system be in place in the different regions of the country. Serious watershed rehabilitation shall be implemented and this should involve various water users. Heavy water users, especially those large agricultural estates and industries, shall be made to participate in the watershed rehabilitation. Moreover, water servicing facilities shall also be required to develop and implement watershed management measures. We should explore more mechanisms in enhancing the user’s fee system for water to generate revenue, which can be used in watershed protection and rehabilitation. (THIS ARTICLE ALSO APPEARED AT THE VISAYAN DAILY STAR, 25 JANUARY 2010 ISSUE, BACOLOD CITY: http://www.visayandailystar.com)*
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