02/23/2010, 00.00
PHILIPPINES

As El Niño causes droughts and power cuts, people turn to shamans and prayers

by Santosh Digal
Since January, 2.5 million tonnes of rice and corn have been lost in the northern regions. Drought is affecting the rest of the country with power cuts and water rationing, including in the capital. Some people turn to shamans. The bishop of Urdeneta urges people to have faith in Providence, and to do all they can to counter the effects of climate change.

Manila (AsiaNews) – An El Niño-induced drought continues to cause havoc in the northern Philippines.  About 2.5 million metric tonnes of rice and corn were lost since the start of the year. Some 800,000 hectares of rice and cornfields have already been affected by the problem. Agriculture has already lost an estimated US$ 33 million, which could go as high as US$ 400 million if this weather pattern continues until July. Drought is also affecting the rest of the country. Regular power cuts are affecting industry and water rationing is creating hardships for the population.

“It is such a difficult situation because we have just survived the typhoons in October that destroyed 1.5 million metric tons of rice and countless basic infrastructures,” Joel Rudinas, an undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture, said Friday. “We are bracing for the worst.”

To deal with the situation, President Arroyo signed an order, asking utility companies to increase water and power supplies to the farming and fishing communities in 14 of the country’s 80 provinces, especially in the north.

Despite pledges of help, most people are resigned. “My family and I are praying to God for rain,” said Ramon Cruz from Urdaneta (North Luzon), one of the most affected promises, but “we are losing hope that crops can be saved.”

In the provinces of North Luzon, the lack of rain has pushed water level so low that the Binga and Magat dams, which provide power to a large area in northern Philippines, could soon be shut down.

“We may have to temporarily stop operation if the water level does not increase," said Mike Hosillos, spokesman for power-generating firm SN Aboitiz Power.

Hosillos, who is also SN Aboitiz Power vice-president for corporate services, said the company is willing to try anything to get water levels to increase, including performing rituals such as the traditional rain dance. “We have always respected the local traditions of the people here; we are one with the community," he said.

The Catholic Church has raised funds at the parish level to help the most affected farmers. With its presence, it has tried to keep up people’s spirits. “We must have trust in Providence,” said Mgr Jacinto Jose Aagcaoili, bishop of Urdaneta, and “do all we can to face the effects of El Niño.

British researchers at the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research had already predicted the return of El Niño back in August.

This cyclical climate pattern occurs every two to seven years. It is characterised by increases in temperatures of the usually cold waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean of the order of plus .5 Cº- 1.5 Cº. Changes in temperature modify normal ocean patterns, causing droughts in Asia and Africa, and heavy rains in South America.

In 1997 and 1998, global warming and El Niño caused a major drought in South-East Asia. The resulting fires destroyed thousands of hectares of forests, with billions of dollars in losses in agriculture.

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