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Sieve or dam?
By Juan Mercado
Mercado writes for the Inquirer and his article is also syndicated in the Bohol Chronicle newspaper

“Even water in the spring dries up,” the Filipino proverb says. And that bugs an unfinished, water-short, P2.3-billion dam in the Central Visayan region's rice bowl of Bohol. Cost overruns of Banyagon Dam in San Miguel, Bohol are the least of its troubles.

Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap left Banyagon May 24, fuming mad, reports Bingo Dejaresco of Bohol Chronicle. Skip the inauguration of the country’s third-largest irrigation dam, Yap will advise President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. That would “spare her from embarrassment.”

“Production of irrigated rice has slumped as Bohol’s three irrigation systems, criss-crossing 10,260 hectares, falter. Capayas in Ubay covers 1,160 hectares and System One in Pilar, 4,960 hectares. When completed, System Two, in San Miguel, will irrigate another 4,140 hectares.

Irrigation’s crucial role is pinpointed by the Food and Agriculture Organization in one stark figure: 36 percent of global harvest is reaped from 16 percent of the world’s cropland that is irrigated. But far too many systems perform below potential due to silting, waste, inept management, etc.

Significantly, irrigated land per capita is declining, as construction costs bolt. “This is historically new,” says the United Nations agency. “Political leaders and development specialists have not yet fully grasped its consequences.”

Little of these trends appears on front pages, however. There, the brawl is cast mainly in terms of red ink. Bohol Gov. Erico Aumentado flays the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) for “not finding remedies to cost overruns … when they had the chance to do so three years ago.” Neda Director-General Romulo Neri was “too late” in objecting since the dam is 80-percent complete, the governor snapped.

The Neda chief, who repeatedly visited the project, spiked further fund releases. The 27-percent cost overrun racked up by Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Ltd. was “excessive,” he said. They were not cleared by the committee overseeing Official Development Assistance projects.

When Japan approved the loan in December 1999, the dollar fetched P40 to $1. Serial devaluations, however, shoved that to P56. It has dropped to P45 plus today. But Neda dawdled on exchange-rate adjustments, Aumentado claims.

As the legal brawl deepens, further delays appear inevitable for a dam that was supposed to open its sluice gates in 2005. But the more intractable problems are elsewhere.

“The usefulness of Bayongan Dam in San Miguel will greatly depend on efficient management and operations (of System One) and Malinao Dam in Pilar,” noted the Irrigated Rice Research Consortium. Of Bohol’s 22 watersheds, the one around Bayongan is among the smaller ones. Thus, the plan called for excess water from Malinao to flow through a connecting channel to Bayongan reservoir.

That was the theory. But it is not happening. “Since start of operations in 1998, (System One) performed poorly,” noted IRRC scientists. “Usually, there is not enough water available during the dry season of December to April. Most affected are the incomes of ‘tail-end farmers’ who live farthest from the dam. This problem is aggravated by unequal water distribution and wasteful use by farmers who employ continuous flooding to irrigate their rice crop.”

Malinao Dam holds only 17 days of water, the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) reported in 2006. And without any recharge, Maliano would run dry, ACIAR’s two-year study asserted. Obviously, Malinao is in no position to funnel water into a second dam.

System One’s shoddy track record, meanwhile, is endangering the life, operation and usefulness of System Two’s Bayongan Dam even before the first drop of water has sloshed through. Is this another white elephant?

So, who know of this design flaw? National Irrigation Administration officials? And when? The record is murky. At a 2005 Bohol Research Consortium workshop, Neri said the dam was not economically viable.

Which of Bohol’s 59 rivers will funnel water into Bayongan? Yap pointedly asked when he visited. “He was told that the dam would be rain-fed,” an observer said. “And Yap’s reaction was unprintable.”

That’s understandable. Yap is gung-ho about building an Agriculture Highway across the nation, interlinking irrigation facilities, storage and farm-to-market roads. Bayongan Dam was to be a linchpin. But that’s not the way this cookie is crumbling. Then, why was it built? Onli in da Pilipins.

All of Bohol’s dams are traditional reservoir-types. These did fine for an era of surplus water. But water shortages are spreading today. Farmers cannot irrigate as their ancestors did centuries ago: channeling water, by gravity, across farms—and losing over 40 percent in sieve-like canals.

The country needs “thrifty irrigation.” New technologies were developed by countries that coped with dry wells. Israel, Cyprus, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and parts of the US use drip, surge and other micro-techniques, reducing water losses by 28 percent. Can we wring more “bang from every drop”?

San Miguel folk, meanwhile, bat around a “Fly-Now-Pay-Later” proposal lofted by their mayor: one member in every "barangay" [village] will be loaned P100,000. Then, he can migrate and work abroad. Who’ll stay home to tend a sieve-like dam?

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