El Niño is parching farms and drying up water supplies in the Philippines, with the southern island of Mindanao taking the brunt of the irregular weather pattern that causes sudden drought-like conditions.

Failing crops in the country’s main food-producing region threaten to add new fuel to inflationary fires, significantly just months after government managers started to contain a surge in prices that saw inflation hit a ten-year high of 5.2% in 2018.

The Department of Agriculture’s latest bulletin, issued on March 11, shows that five of the six regions worst affected by El Niño’s dry spell are situated in Mindanao, the country’s main food-producing area.

Drought conditions have destroyed farm crops encompassing 13,679 hectares and adversely affected an estimated 16,034 farmers and fisherfolk, according to initial data released on March 11 by the Agriculture Department’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Operations Center.

El Niño’s toll is expected to rise considerably as more damage reports are submitted by local government units in Mindanao’s affected regions in the weeks ahead.

North Cotabato, located in Central Mindanao and one of the worst-hit areas, has seen agricultural damage worth 670.8 million pesos (US$12.7 million) alone, according to data from the provincial agriculture office that the national Department of Agriculture has yet to validate.

An El-Nino affected field in the Philippines in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

In North Cotabato’s sleepy farming township of Tulunan, over a thousand farmers have foregone planting rice paddy in usually rain-fed farms covering 1,455 hectares because El Niño has scorched their farmlands.

The Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council has placed the town under a state of calamity to allow the utilization of two million pesos (around US$40,000) to distribute rice to distressed farmers.

“Some farms have no yield at all while those who were able to harvest, the volume was lesser due to the dry spell,” Salvacion Yata, the municipal agriculture officer, told Asia Times, referring to rain-fed areas where a few farmers had resorted to planting drought-resistant crops such as mung beans and watermelons.

Her agency is working to confirm information that indigenous peoples have resorted to eating wild yam, locally called “kayos”, which is poisonous if not prepared properly, due to rising food shortages in the area.

Yata said agriculture authorities fear that food shortages will linger and intensify in the months ahead if the El Niño phenomenon, which is projected to last until May 2019, does not soon start to dissipate.

Drought conditions are also starting to affect livestock, with reports indicating that some farm animals like water buffalo and goats are dying due to a lack of forage caused by the heat.

A farmer scoops rice grains which they dried after hastily harvesting them prior to the arrival of Super Typhoon Mangkhut in Alcala, Cagayan province on September 16, 2018.Typhoon Mangkhut rocked Hong Kong en route to mainland China on September 16, injuring scores and sending skyscrapers swaying, after killing at least 30 people in the Philippines and ripping a swathe of destruction through its agricultural heartland. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
A Filipino farmer scoops rice grains into a sack in Alcala, Cagayan province on September 16, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Ricardo dela Cruz, a rice farmer in Mindanao, said in an interview with Asia Times that his yield is now 20% to 30% lower than last year’s harvest due to El Niño.

Dela Cruz said local commodity traders are nonetheless taking advantage of the situation by lowering their buying price of rice paddy to 17 pesos (US$0.32) per kilo from 20 pesos (US$0.38) per kilo at last years harvest, despite falling supplies caused by El Niño.

At the same time, some local rice retailers who sell in Mindanao’s public markets have jacked up prices for premium rice to 50 pesos per kilo from 47 pesos late last year, local sources say.

The 54-year-old farmer also says that the prices of farm inputs and basic commodities have skyrocketed in recent years, making it difficult to cover costs even when there is enough water for their crops.

The Philippine government does not regulate the market purchase price for rice paddy, though Dela Cruz and others have called for legislation or policy to ensure a minimum purchase price of 25 pesos or higher per kilogram.

The state-owned National Food Authority increased its buying price for rice paddy from 17 pesos per kilo to 20.4 pesos (US$0.39) earlier this year, to encourage farmers to sell their produce to the grains agency.

But Dela Cruz said he and other small-scale farmers often opt not to sell to the NFA as their hands are tied to the private traders who provide forward financing for their farming inputs including fertilizer and pesticides.

A Filipino farmer with his water buffalo in Badoc, Ilocos Norte province, in a file photo. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Meanwhile, El Niño is causing abrupt spikes in other staple food prices. In the island province of Tawi-Tawi prices of grated cassava, the island’s main food staple, have risen six-fold from 25 pesos to 150 pesos per container in recent weeks. El Niño-caused drought conditions have devastated the crop, local government reports show.

Authorities are scrambling to cushion the blow through seed subsidies to affected farmers as well as cloud seeding in a bid to make it rain in parched areas, though so far with minimal success.

With El Niño expected to linger for at least two and possibly three more months, prices of rice and other food commodities are expected to climb, making it difficult for agrarians made jobless by the dry spell to survive.

History shows food price inflation can lead to instability in Mindanao. In the early 1990s, a similar El Niño situation triggered hungry farmers to ransack a warehouse of the National Food Authority packed with rice in Mindanao’s Sultan Kudarat province.

Some observers fear a repeat of food rioting in Mindanao if the government doesn’t quickly extend sufficient assistance to affected farmers.

The problem is already reaching beyond Mindanao. Searing weather conditions are causing water supply shortages across the country, including in Metro Manila, where an estimated 12 million people reside.

A water faucet juxtaposed against a parched field. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Recent news reports said that water levels at La Mesa Dam, one of the major water sources for Metro Manila, dropped on March 10 to 68.9 meters, breaching the 69-meter critically low marker and plumbing its lowest level in 12 years.

Videos and photos of people waiting in long queues for a turn to fetch water in Manila’s poor suburbs are circulating like wildfire on social media, with many standing in lines even late at night.

Manila’s water concessionaire has resorted to rationing in some parts of the capital city, with government-owned fire trucks also helping to deliver bathing or washing water to parched communities.

The state weather forecaster has warned that 22 provinces will experience “way below” normal rainfall and 50 provinces will see “below” normal precipitation levels in the months ahead.

Whether the government has the wherewithal to deal with El Niño’s impact on faltering food and water supplies is an increasingly hot question without a sufficient answer.