(Editor's note: Let's send qualified observers to our ASEAN neighbors that sold rice to us by the millions of metric tons, as noted by the author.)
There's one agency in the bureaucracy whose usefulness is seldom mentioned by our top officials. But it's very popular (or unpopular) to farmers for its service (or lack of it) to self-sufficiency in rice production. This is the office in charge of our irrigation systems. Farmers liken this agency to a famous commercial, "It pours when it rains" that advertises a superior brand of table salt. If rainfall in June can be called pouring like cats and dogs, then the ricefields will benefit from irrigation canals in the area.
The national irrigation office has no accurate record of its provincial districts that supply the right amount of water if it does not rain. According to rice farmers, with three to five hectares to till, the most productive months - November, December, and January to May - can give two bountiful harvests if irrigation canals continue to flow without waiting for rain. Dams can give water to farms within its immediate vicinity only. But fairly deep rivers, in abundance nationwide, can supply irrigation water to vast ricefields.
Between 2000 and 2010, government reports of irrigation projects abandoned by contractors had not asked the parties for the appropriate accountability with the government at the losing end. It's hard to imagine that Vietnam has been selling millions of metric tons of rice to us in a matter of years, not decades, after winning the war in April, 1975. And now Cambodia is exporting large quantities of rice to our country. Why are these two countries so successful in building highly useful irrigation systems?
Learning in college
We have more than a dozen state universities/colleges offering courses in agriculture. We assume the courses include the importance of such infrastructures as roads and irrigation canals that can supply water to vast ricefields nationwide all year round. But our economic managers have shifted their focus to planting hybrid rice to export a few hundred bags, NOT metric tons.
Irrigation and flood control
Years ago, I found myself in the middle of a fairly wide riceland in a town south of Tokyo. I was curious about a seasonal harvest of rice in Japan which has a long cold season and snow covering the land. I asked our host about water supply to ricefields. He guided us to a concrete irrigation canal measuring about four meters wide and three meters deep. We saw young boys swimming in clean water. Alongside the irrigation canal was an empty waterway with the same measurement. I asked about the empty canal which our guide described as "reserve" for flood waters flowing to the sea.
In comparison, our irrigation canals are a lot thinner and shallower and not made of concrete so silt collects.
Japan is not noted for rice exports but what I saw was a clear model in conservation and protection against extensive flooding. In my few visits to Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, I have not seen such method of supplying water to ricefields and protecting vast areas against heavy rainfall caused by a storm.
What R500m can do
The report on how R500m was wasted by DPWH on a 13-km road in Leyte leads all of us to think that we can build an irrigation system for huge farmlands for less than R500m. We are now again in the planning stage of providing water to farms nationwide. If this plan was fully and properly implemented in 1975 (when Vietnam won the war), we could proudly tell our ASEAN neighbors that we're now exporting rice by the millions of metric tons and will continue to do so for years.
Copying Cambodian farmers
Rice farming can be taught to the average Filipino farmers without a diploma from UP Los Baños or a dozen state universities and colleges (SUCs) with large budgets from Congress. Farmers can copy models in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and recently India. One such study by a Cambodian won him the prestigious Magsaysay Award this year.
We have hundreds of graduates who can qualify as observers of how our successful ASEAN neighbors plant just one rice seedling at a proper distance now in practice in India and Cambodia. After returning to Manila the government can set aside 10 to 100 hectares for our "observers" to practice what practical technology they saw and learned.
This is faster than the boast that we achieved self-sufficiency in rice production but cannot export 1,000 metric tons for a start. (Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org).