If the middle class’s patriotism is soluble in taxes, the one of farmers can also dissolve in irrigation fees.
For years, farmers have been clamoring for a moratorium on irrigation payments.
Basically, what they seek is parity—to be treated the same way that conglomerates have been showered with tax incentives by government.
Indeed, if many projects by those who have made it to the Forbes billionaires’ list are kept afloat by fiscal freebies, then why can’t they, who are having a hard time making it to the next meal, receive free water?
Irrigation fees paid by those who till the land may be a small drop in the bucket for those whom they feed.
The going rate is two cavans of rice per hectare during the wet season, and three cavans during the dry months. One year’s worth of café latte money for those who want to avail of free WiFi.
But for those who work the land in never ending penury, those three cavans could spell the difference between famine or feast.
For those bowed by the weight of backbreaking, maraming kahig, walang tuka labor, three cavans could mean that their children will go to bed on a full stomach, instead of going to school on an empty one.
So if we are giving tax breaks to the idle rich, Mr. President, on the belief that money retained in their pockets are better spent by them than by the government, the same benefit should also be extended to the working poor.
Making irrigation water free is a kind of tax break for farmers, but of the liquid kind.
True, it may not make all of them financially liquid overnight. It will not get them rich, but it will help them get by.
Mr. President, as we are on the cusp of granting tax breaks to the salaried, professionals and businessmen, I think it would be wise to compare the exemptions sought to be given to compensation earners against the cost this bill would entail.
Perhaps showing this comparative scale of generosity would tilt those who have reservations on this bill to its side.
The projected income foregone from lower personal income tax rates is at least P180 billion a year.
This bill, on the other hand, would waive P1.5 billion in annual irrigation fees, the amount the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) collected last fiscal year.
The disparity is not on the income forfeited alone.
In fact, it is grows bigger on the number of beneficiaries. Seven million compensation earners, to 8.9 million farmers and farm laborers.
In short, we will be helping many, with less.
In terms of what aid to give to our farmers, free irrigation is the low-hanging fruit.
We don’t have the money to cover every square meter of land with fertilizer, or build solar dryers on a fraction of them.
We don’t have enough money to wipe out the deficit in paved farm-to-market (FMR) roads. In fact, if we sustain current annual spending of six billion pesos on FMRs, it will take us at least 30 years to turn all rural roads from dirt to concrete.
The same is true with postharvest facilities and other farm machinery. We’re light-years away from making mechanical combines a fixture of the rural scenery.
Postharvest wastage remains a stubborn enemy. The volume of palay lost to poor handling in a year is enough to sate the unli-rice cravings of 17.1 million Filipinos.
But irrigation water, it is something that is already there, seeping through furrows in many farms, lapping onto the yards of farmers. It is something which has already been delivered. The only thing left is to waive the bill.
And how much are we writing off? P1.5 billion a year.
Well, some will see this as an unrecoverable expense. I see it, however, as a recoupable investment with a high yield.
It is an antipoverty tool. Agriculture absorbs 27 percent of jobs, and is home to the 40 percent of the poor. What better way to fight raging poverty in the countryside than by dousing it with water.
Hopefully, with other farm initiatives, it will lead to more affordable food.
This is important because food eats up 60 percent of the budget of the bottom 30 percent of families—that sector called the GNP, or the Gutom Na Pilipino, is on the rise.
Kaya nga ang gusto ng tao ay makatikim ng murang pagkain, at hindi lang mura mula sa Pangulo. Hindi extra judicial killing, kundi extra rice at extra ulam.
As to the amount foregone, it is small compared to other expenses with fewer benefits the government is splurging on.
Compare the P1.5 billion to the P6.7 billion in intelligence funds, or the P17.9 billion in travel expenses of bureaucrats this year.
It is 1.5 percent of the P102 billion we allocated this year in pension for retired soldiers and policemen.
Gusto nyo pa ng isang halimbawa? Central Bank has requested P150 billion in additional capitalization, a request Congress will likely accede to.
Ano ibig sabihin nito? That banks are too big to fail but irrigation is too big to fund?
But this is not to say, Mr. President, my dear colleagues, that this bill is the cure-all to what ails the farm sector.
It only forms part of the cocktail of solutions. One of which is to end the perpetual El Niño in farm appropriations.
The other is to balance our urban-centric development view with rural imperatives.
If we are raring to build a Metro Manila subway worth gazillions of pesos, then we should also apply the same bold thinking in bringing billions of gallons of water to our farms through more waterways.
Hindi naman po ito mahirap. Ang annual rainfall sa atin ay 7 feet, 7 inches, lampas tao. Sa Australia, 21 inches, o hanggang binti. Sa Bahrain, isang bansot na 3.8 inches, o hanggang sakong.
Despite two dozen typhoons dumping water that transforms large swaths of our land into a Waterworld, including Manila roads into rapids, we are lagging behind in storing this water for the dry months.
Rain is a matter of God’s grace. Storing it is a matter of good governance.
Unfortunately, we are failing on the latter. At present, of the three million hectares of irrigable land, only 1.7 million are irrigated, leaving a backlog of 1.3 million hectares.
That is, however, on paper, but in reality, many irrigation systems are in need of repair.
The following data underscore the urgency of rehabilitation and expansion.
Only about 568 thousand hectares administered by the NIA, under its national irrigation program, were reached by water in 2015, below the 836 thousand hectares in its reported service inventory.
Water also reached just 362 thousand hectares covered by many community irrigation systems, which, on record, claim to service 638 thousand hectares.
Sadly, funds to expand the service area remain a drop in the bucket of what is needed.
For 2017, for example, we have budgeted P38.4 billion to bring water to 29 thousand hectares of unirrigated farmland and to restore 18 thousand hectares presently served by the NIA, among others.
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.
Clearly, we are bringing water to farms at a glacial pace.
It should instead “flow like a river” and be “an ever-flowing stream,” to borrow a line from the Good Book.
Such a Biblical reference is apt because providing water to farmers is truly a matter of justice, not just to farmers but to Filipinos yet to be born.
We can’t future-proof our country through a drip-drip of funds to irrigation and agriculture.
Irrigation doubles farm yield. That’s neither fake news or alternative fact.
We can only coax six tons of rice out of an hectare of unirrigated land. With irrigation, production rises to 8.6 tons, on account of two to three harvests a year.
So as water supply increases, food imports recede, and malnutrition retreats.
Lampas tatlong daang bilyon po ang ating food import bill, yung deklarado, hindi kasama ang smuggled, tulad ng pinuslit na bawang.
Irrigation is an unpostponable exercise because water is a non-substitutable input in growing food.
Through hydrophonics, plants can grow without soil. They can live in greenhouses bathed with artificial light. But they can’t survive without water.
Thus, the old-age mantra: Without water, there is no agriculture. Without agriculture, there is no food. Without food there is no life.
So basically, Mr. President, this bill is about life, which is why I am calling for its urgent passage.