According to experts, El Nino is a cyclical event that is caused by the warming of the eastern equatorial part of the Pacific Ocean. Its effect in the Philippines is dry (below normal rainfall), warm (slightly higher temperature than normal) and lesser number of tropical cyclones/typhoons resulting in drought or near drought conditions. Typically, El Nino happens at irregular intervals of 3–7 years and lasts nine months to two years. It is not a moving system like a typhoon.

El Nino is normally predicted a long time before it even makes any impact to a country. Its slow onset provides a longer lead time to prepare for possible negative impacts than any other weather condition, such as, a tropical cyclone.

As early as November 2014, PAGASA, our national meteorological agency has already released dry condition advisory and by March 2015, announced the onset of El Nino. It started as weak and eventually forecasted to be a strong El Nino by the latter part of 2015.

Reports of parched lands, burnt fields, crop losses, and food shortages, especially in Mindanao, have recently made headlines almost on a weekly basis. Stories of a farmer committing suicide and another farmer losing his sanity were attributed to many months of drought in the Southern Philippines, particularly in the Maguindanao province. Maguindanao was predicted to be one of the hardest hit areas for this 2015-2016 El Nino event.

It comes at an opportune time and place, but the first ever Presidential debate on agriculture will happen on February 21 in Mindanao, the place where farmers are reeling from the impacts of El Nino. What are the plans of the candidates to solve these problems by farmers now and in the future? 

Where and what form of government support should take place? With a year to prepare, what has been done by the current government to proactively manage potential risks of El Nino? For the Presidential candidates, how do they envision the future of Filipino food and agriculture given the challenges posed by events such as El Nino?

Unfortunately, President Benigno Aquino III only approved the Php 19 billion budget for El Nino last December 11, 2015, and the funds are yet to be released.

2015: Significant Rainfall Reduction 

Sample climate data from PAGASA provincial stations in Bohol and Cotabato reveal an overall reduction of rainfall for the year compared to their normal rainfall over the last 30 years. Bohol is especially vulnerable, being an island with highly limited irrigation services. Meanwhile, Cotabato is the nearest station to some of the areas where reported El Nino impacts are most severe.

Normal, Average El Nino and 2015 Actual Climate Data Record for Cotabato and Bohol Stations


Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Annual

Normal Rainfall

89.5 83 129.9 151.7 277.1 323.9 322.6 243.7 262.1 281.4 220.7 132.8 2,072

Actual reading

90.4 42.7 9.6 63.6 73.9 165.7 156.7 221.7 302.5 109.8 139 35.8 1,411.4
Normal Rainfall
101 79.6 76.6 67.5 81.5 128.2 126.7 116.3 126.5 176.3 178.9 153.3 1,412.7
Actual Reading
117.4 17.8 8.2 21.0 1.9 118.1 111.2 71.6 282.0 130.8 91.7 152.5 1,124.2

Source: PAGASA

El Nino, despite being a slow onset hazard, can be as disastrous as a typhoon. The most severe El Nino events affecting the Philippines were the 1982-1983, 1997-98 and 2009-2010 events.  Total losses in terms of production value are in the billions of pesos. The 2009-2010 El Nino damage and losses to agriculture production reached Php 17.4 billion (US$ 365M) and affected 555,000 hectares of crops and livelihoods.  The 1997-1998 El Nino event’s impacts were more widespread, affecting 677,441 hectares of crops and livelihoods.

A seasonal crop production loss can potentially reduce a poor farming family’s ability to survive for the next 4-5 months and beyond. It can further put them to indebtedness and tie them down to dependency.

Thus it is essential to make farmers El Nino ready and resilient.

How do we make farmers El Nino ready?

El Nino develops slowly, so a climate-based warning on a daily, most importantly weekly and seasonal basis becomes highly important. The daily and weekly farm management, informed by weather forecast, are important tools to effectively manage the slowly developing possible effects of El Nino.

Rice Watch and Action Network (R1) has been at the forefront of building climate resilient farms in different parts of the country (insert link to video).  Aside from localizing climate information and making these available to farmers, R1 assists farming communities to establish community-based varietal seed trials, a municipal seed production and buffer stocking program and community based organic fertilizer production. This will improve self-reliance in seeds and ensure availability of locally adapted farm production materials in times of need. Many farmers can attest that organically fertilized farms have proven to be more resilient during dry conditions as it helps improve water-holding capacities of soils.

On a more strategic direction, public investments ought be directed in setting up more rainwater harvesting systems. The country’s rainfall provides more than 600 billion tons[1] of rainfall per year but most just drain away and often causes devastating floods. Thus, it is important to collect and manage water both at community and household level to make it more useful especially in areas with very limited water endowment. And this should happen way before the onset of El Nino.

Along with these practical ideas, farmers need to transform their values and attitude.  Our farmers will need to be more observant and nurturing. To manage the farm better, they will need to visit their farm more often, know the risks of their livelihoods to particular weather and be equipped with practical, sustainable and ecological risks management ideas to save or protect his livelihood. In the Philippines, the local governments should play a vital role in ensuring this, being the primary agency that should provide frontline agriculture services.

But now more than ever, we need a strong policy direction from the next President and Department of Agriculture Secretary for a climate resilient and ecological food and agriculture system. 

This election season, our farmers ask our Presidential candidates: how do you solve a problem like El Nino?

Hazel Tanchuling is a Coordinator for Rice Watch and Action Network.