Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto hailed President Duterte’s signing on Feb. 2 of the Free Irrigation Law, saying it should “open the floodgates of an irrigation building spree, which is needed for us to feed our growing number of people.”
Republic Act 10969 grants free irrigation to farmers owning not more than 8 hectares of land, and condones unpaid irrigation fees by farmers who till the same size of land.
The law “sets in stone” Duterte’s order to freeze the collection of irrigation fees, “thus, it cannot be repealed by a mere executive action in the future,” explained Recto.
While the policy of paid farm water for small farms is now abandoned, “there is no abdication on the part of the government to expand and improve irrigation facilities, and that commitment is in the national budget,” Recto said.
“Sa taong ito, P40.8 billion ang budget ng National Irrigation Administration, P2 billion more than its allotment last year,” Recto said.
He said that Senators Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Cynthia Villar, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, have both made sure that irrigation fees waived by the NIA are “reimbursed” through the General Appropriations Act.
“Foregone revenue is about P1.5 billion a year. Which is small compared to the P6.7 billion in intelligence funds for 2017, or the P17.9 billion in travel expenses of bureaucrats last year,” Recto said.
Recto said irrigation fees – pegged at the price of two cavans of palay per hectare during the wet season, and three cavans during the dry months – which would have been paid by farmers will now be retained by them, “to boost family income or farm production.”
“Those three cavans could spell the difference between famine and feast,” Recto said.
Recto said irrigation and other farm infrastructure should also be part of the government’s “build, build, build” drive.
Expanding “the irrigation footprint” is the greatest challenge, he said. At present, of the three million hectares of irrigable land, only 1.7 million are irrigated, leaving a backlog of 1.3 million hectares.
Last year’s NIA budget of almost P39 billion, “while impressive on paper,” was only enough to build new irrigation in 29,000 hectares of farmland and repair facilities existing in 18,000 hectares.
“At the rate we are appropriating, which is compounded by the slow utilization of funds, it will take us 45 years – almost half a century – to wipe out the deficit. This drip-drip of funds for irrigation must end,” Recto said.
Recto said the state of irrigation has an impact on how much food is on the table. “We can only coax six tons of rice out of a hectare of unirrigated land. With irrigation, production rises to 8.6 tons. So as water supply increases, food imports recede, and hunger retreats.”
Recto is co-author of the law. Sen. Lacson was first to file a bill on the said subject in the Senate, followed by Recto, and then Senators Zubiri, Villar, Legarda, Ejercito, Villanueva, Gatchalian, Gordon.
The bill was principally sponsored “and skillfully championed” by Sen. Villar, Recto said.
Corporate farms, plantations, fishponds, and those drawing water for non-agricultural purposes are not covered by free irrigation.