Sunday, 21 February 2010

In bone-dry Isabela, desperately seeking rain

TUMAUINI, Isabela - The sun was at its peak at the small town of Tumauini in Isabela province but still Fely Santiago, a corn farmer, toiled away in her cornfield.

Santiago carried a long black PVC pipe to her plot, in an attempt to divert water from a nearby river and irrigate her dying corn crops. Most of what she planted have already been destroyed by the dry spell in the province due to the effects of El Niño in the region.

"Kahit kayod kami ng kayod, kung wala namang hanapbuhay dahil wala na kaming ma-ani... Natutuyo ang mais, kahit may laman 'yan, eh parang monggo na," she said.

Fely says she's been praying for rain for the past week, but as the days go by with nary a sight of a change in weather, she is losing hope that she can still save her crops.

If she is unable to salvage anything during harvest season, she says he won't be able to pay back money she borrowed to invest on the crops. Fely has three children.

"Kung talagang wala na kaming ma-ani, wala na kaming pambili ng pagkain. Siguro ibebenta na lang namin yung kalabaw."

El Niño drying up hectares of farmland

Tumauini is one of hardest hit towns in Isabela. The province was placed under a state of calamity on February 10 due to the threat of El Niño. (ABS-CBN News Video: Isabela under state of calamity due to dry spell

The El Niño phenomenon is a climate phenomenon characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, according to the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administratio (NOAA). (Read: NOAA primer on El Niño "El Niño is an oscillation of the ocean-atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific having important consequences for weather around the globe," the NOAA states.

Here in the Philippines, El Niño events are "associated with drier than normal conditions which cause dry spells or even drought," the national weather bureau PAGASA said.

The PAGASA cited the agricultural sector as the most vulnerable to these droughts, with great losses seen in areas devoted to rice and corn.

Isabela has been cited by the bureau as among the provinces whose rice and corn crops are "highly vulnerable" to the effects of El Niño. (See map:

According to the Department of Agriculture (DA) in Region 2, out of 183,000 hectares of cornfields in the region (which includes the provinces of Batanes, Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino), 121,000 hectares have already been affected by the drought. Around 7,000 hectares of those have already been considered "totally damaged," with the crops no longer useable.

Rice fields have also been affected. Out of 251,000 hectares in Region 2, 25,200 hectares are affected, with 1,200 hectares declared totally damaged.

Isabela, considered the biggest corn producer and the second largest producer of rice (next to Nueva Ecija), is already suffering huge economic losses due to the drought.

The province's Provincial Agriculture Office has already reported P1.6 billion worth of losses in their corn and rice fields as of February. To put the gravity of the losses this year, back in 2007 - the last experience of drought by the province - total losses throughout the dry period was just P1 billion.

Critical water levels

Isabela's problem with the drought is exacerbated by the critical water levels of the Magat Dam, the primary source of irrigation water for farmlands in the area.

Halfway through February, Magat Dam plant manager Melvyn Eugenio said water level in the dam's reservoir is at 165 meters above sea level.

Eugenio explained that if the reservoir's water level reaches 160 meters, the hydroelectric plant will stop its production of electricity, which would then create electricity shortages in the region.

Meanwhile, if the water level reaches 147 meters, irrigation would not be possible because the water won't be able to reach the mouth of the dam's spillway.

On record, the lowest water level recorded at the reservoir during the 1990s was 157 meters, and it occurred during the height of the summer season when most farmers are done harvesting crops.

This time, the drastic decrease in water levels have occurred in February, when most farmers have just planted their crops last December or January.

"This is the worst na na-attain namin ang water level na ito," Eugenio said.

Due to the critical water levels at the Magat Dam reservoir, the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) has started scheduling irrigation for farmers. Prior to the drought, farmers are assured of round-the-clock irrigation of their crops.

In a related move, the Isabela provincial government have scheduled 10-hour-long blackouts, affecting several towns in Isabela and neighboring Quirino and Ifugao, due to the low power output of Magat Dam.

The blackouts, scheduled on Wednesday, will affect Santiago City and the towns of Ramon, San Isidro and Cordon in Isabela; Alfonso Lista in Ifugao; and the municipalities of Cabarroguis, Diffun, Saguday, Aglipay, Maddela and Nagtipunan in Quirino. The blackouts will last from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

From too much to too little

Magat Dam administrators said that they had lots of water in their reservoir back in October and November, a time when several storm systems lashed Northern Luzon and dumped record amounts of rainfall in the area. But they needed a buffer and were asked to release water to make room in the dam for rainfall they expected in December as forecasted by weather bureau PAGASA.

However, since Pepeng, no storm visited in Isabela, so instead of being able to impound water and save up for the dry season, they had very little water left in the reservoir, leading to the critical water levels presently being recorded.

"As you all know, yung typhoon Ondoy, typhoon Pepeng... we have to create some buffer zone dito sa dam kaya tinapon ang tubig para pagdating ng mga ulan noong (November-December) meron pupuntahan ng tubig and those expecting yung mga darating pang bagyo. Ang problema, 'di na dumating yung bagyo. wala na. Natapon na, 'di na nating puwede ibalik," Eugenio said.

Isabela provincial governor Grace Padaca wondered if the current water level in the dams were affected by the panic late last year of dams bursting or overflowing with water after the storms back in October.

Back then, the flooding in Pangasinan and parts of other Central Luzon provinces were blamed on the release of water from several dams, as water levels rose due to the typhoons. This issue then triggered a Senate inquiry on the protocols on dam water release, leading dams to release water from their reservoirs more regularly to avoid bursting dams.

Padaca wondered if too much caution on overflowing reservoirs might have been a contributing factor on the current water levels of the reservoir.

"Looking back kasi... dahil sa nangyari sa Pangasinan noong bagyong Pepeng - na parang sabi nila sumabog yung dam pero di naman talaga nag-overflow ang dam - Nabatikos-nabatikos ang NIA, ang mga dam operators," she said.

"I don't know if that had an effect dito sa amin sa Magat Dam na, baka pag-umulan... masyadong sobrang laman yung tubig sa mga reservoir kaya't nagpakawala. 'Yan tuloy, wala nang sumunod after Pepeng," she said.

Padaca proposes there should be a study done if there really is a correlation between the current water levels and the release of water from the dams late last year.

She added, "siguro lessons learned, huwag tayo padadala sa emosyon... Dahil binabatikos tayo, kung ano yung gusto [ng mga tao iyon na ang gagawin]. Eh doon na tayo [sa] dapat [gawin]. Dapat ilaban natin 'yong dapat [gawin]."

Cloud seeding 'too late'

Magat dam administrators along with the DA are trying to alleviate the problems brought on by El Nino and the shortage of irrigation water from the dam.

They have been conducting cloud seeding operations based in Bagabag airport in Nueva Vizcaya. The DA said that this is the quickest way they know how to solve the problem - trying to create artificial rains for farmlands and to increase water in the dam.

As of posting time, no substantial rainfall has occurred in the region.

Chemtrad, the company tasked by the DA and SN Aboitiz Power (the operator of the Magat Dam hydroelectric plant) to conduct the seeding operations, said it might be too late to conduct the operations.

Chemtrad said clouds which are needed for the seeding are rare during this time. Cloud seeding should have been done last November, or all-year-long like in Thailand, they said.

50 pumps for 187,000 farmers

As the region waits for rain, the local government is lending water pumps to farmers to help pump water to bone-dry fields.

However, they only have 50 water pumps available to 187,000 farmers waiting for irrigation water.

A water pump would be able to serve only 10 farmers, therefore only 500 out of the thousands of farmers would benefit from the pumps - a very small fraction.

Padaca is appealing to the national government and DA to lend them water pumps from other regions in the Philippines, particularly from areas where there is no drought, or areas where the pumps aren't in use.

"You can't expect them (the farmers) to buy irrigation pumps at 40 thousand pesos each. And then yung pang-crudo po. So kailangan namin ang tulong dito," she said.

For the long term, officials are recommending farmers to grow crops that are less dependent on water, like tobacco, peanuts, and other legumes.

"Probably farmers should plant plants [that are] also not-so-dependent sa water. Mga monggo, mga peanuts. They are not dependent so much on water. 'Yan ang mga alternative crop na kailangan nilang itanim," Eugenio said.

"We can only prepare ourselves for the future na lang. Like ano ba itong inireccommend sa aking ng ating mga provincial agriculturists. Sabi nila ay instead of corn kasi, mag-diversify. Huwag lahat ilagay sa mais. Use organic fertilizer para hindi masyado ang evaporation. Lahat prospective na eh. Because ngayon, talagang cloud seeding lang kung may ulap, bomba, saka yung pang-crudo nila. Other than that, what else can we do?" Padaca said.

'Dry' disaster

She also said agricultural problems in their province would have a big impact on the nation.

"What happens to Isabela will affect the whole Philippines. We are the number one biggest producer of corn in the entire country, bar none. So kung walang suplay sa mais, walang suplay sa mga feeds na pampakain ng mga manok at baboy at pag nakataon, tataas na naman ang presyon ng karne," Padaca said.

Padaca said that people should also bear in mind that this is a "dry" disaster.

"A calamity in Isabela, especially among farmers, is not only when yung mga tao ay basa, nababaha, nasa tuktok ng mga bubong nila dahil nakakalamidad sila. This is a dry kind of disaster. You cannot see [it]. Parang walang emergency dito. Para akala mo, OK lang... Pero hindi. After this, what happens? Magugutom ang mga tao," she added.

The current El Niño, the PAGASA said, continues to sustain its moderate strength and is recently in its mature stage, and is forecasted by PAGASA to strectch all the way up to May or June.

Because of this, all that farmers like Aling Fely can do now is wait for the heavens to answer their prayers, and for rain to fall.

Get a 'Headstart' with Karen Davila on ANC

MANILA, Philippines - Television and radio broadcaster Karen Davila is now on ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC).

The award-winning broadcast journalist will anchor the morning news program “Headstart with Karen Davila” on ANC (Skycable Channel 27) starting March 1 at 8 a.m.

In her new assignment, Davila will set the news agenda for the day by breaking the most significant stories and issues unfolding in the country early in the morning.

“Having an experienced news anchor and investigative journalist like Davila in our fold furthers our goal to bring premium content to Filipinos here and abroad,” ANC chief operating officer Glenda Gloria said.

“Headstart” marks Davila’s first foray in the 24/7 English news channel of ABS-CBN.

Davila has won numerous awards locally and internationally in her 16-year career, including 2 from the prestigious New York Festivals and the 2008 Ten Outstanding Young Men Award for Broadcast Journalism.

She also anchors “TV Patrol World” and “The Correspondents” on ABS-CBN and “Pasada Sais Trenta” on DZMM Radyo Patrol 630.

“Headstart with Karen Davila” will air from Mondays to Fridays on ANC at 8 a.m.

Also debuting on ANC on March 1 is “The Rundown” with Ces Drilon and Ricky Carandang at 8 p.m.

Keep your coins out of the piggy bank, BSP pleads

MANILA, Philippines – Feeding a piggy bank with loose change may have been considered a Filipino’s practical way to save, but the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas said this old-age practice may not be doing the overall economy any good.

In a press conference on Friday, BSP deputy governor Diwa Guinigundo said keeping coins in piggy banks, or unconsciously not using them for daily spending needs, creates an artificial shortage of coins.

An artificial shortage—also called warehousing in industry lingo—forces the central bank to plug the gap, which means additional costs.

"As it is, we have the highest per capita number of coins in Southeast Asia. In other words we have 75 to 100 coins per Filipino but the problem is that we are warehousing these, so we have an artificial shortage," Guinigundo added.

Guinigundo said the BSP has circulated 15.6 billion coins worth P16.9 billion as of 2009, but only a portion of these is being used.

The BSP has to mint more coins to address consistent requests from banks for more supply.

"If we can get more coins circulating, the BSP may mint less coins, thus reducing its expenses. If this happens, the BSP can improve its income, and pay more taxes and remit more dividends to the national government," Guinigundo explained.

The BSP had remitted P6 billion of its P8.93-billion 2008 profit to the government.

Artificial shortage

The problem of circulating the Philippine currency has long been a concern of the BSP, according to the Sun Star column of Ignacio Bunye, a member of the Monetary Board, BSP’s policy making body.

He wrote that the board had created a special committee called the Currency Management Committee 5 years ago to specifically address the coins supply issue.

Bunye, a former Malacanang spokesman, explained that aside from ending up in piggy banks for a long time, coins are persistently short in supply since Filipinos tend to have a negative attitude and low regard for coins, particularly the lower denominated ones.

This attitude manifests when Filipinos leave the coins at home only to gather dust and, in most cases, forever forgotten. He noted that coins given out as loose change during a transaction tend to attract irritated sighs as these are considered “a hassle” or “excess baggage.”

When coins are used to purchase goods, these go back to circulation and the demand-supply balance for coins remains, he stressed.

Coins also keep prices down. Without a P0.05, for example, Bunye said businessmen would tend to round prices off to the higher value. Thus, a product that costs only P1.95 would end up being sold for P2.00.

Cost of P1.00

Bunye said the BSP suspects that another problem is exacerbating the artificial shortage: smuggling.

He explained that the BSP’s Mint Refinery Operations Division had noted attempts in the past 2 years to smuggle out Philippine coins. A government’s information agency website noted Bunye’s previous report on how perpetrators melted the P0.25 coins and combined these with other metal components to make sinks that are more durable.

Law enforcement agencies had previously intercepted some defaced and mutilated coins about to be shipped to various Asian countries. Smugglers sell these to makers of tokens, computer parts and bullets, according to Bunye.

Smugglers apparently eyed the P1 coin due to increased global demand for copper and nickel.

Both metal contents are present in the old series of the P1 coin but not as high in the newer series. He said the recent ones are now made of nickel-plated and low-value steel, which should discourage smugglers.

Nonetheless, he said the BSP spends around P1.55 to produce the current P1 in circulation. He said metal content costs P0.75 while production cost is at roughly P0.80.

The difference in the coins’ face value and the total production costs (labor plus metal) is even wider in lower denominated coins, such as the P0.25, P0.10 and P0.0.1, Bunye explained.

Plea to politicians, churches

To address the persistent coins problem, the BSP is making its plea to different sectors, including banks, the church, gambling firms, and politicians campaigning for the May 2010 elections.

Bunye encouraged banks not to regard coin deposits as “labor intensive.” He said banks should even encourage their clients to deposit their coins. He also persuaded parents to accompany their kids to the bank to deposit these coins, instead of dropping them in piggy banks.

He made the same plea to charitable institutions that place tin cans beside supermarket and department store cashiers. He said these groups should immediately retrieve the cans and deposit the coins in the bank instead of leaving the coins idle for a prolonged period.

Guinigundo also appealed to groups that are natural repositories of coins due to their business or activity.

“[We] appeal to the church where most of these coins are warehoused and to those running games of chance," he said.

Coins, usually in P1, P5 and P10 denominations, tend to be concentrated in places where illegal gambling, such as jueteng or similar numbers games, reputedly proliferates.

Guinigundo said it expects demand for coins especially the P1.00 and P10.00 denominations to increase with the coming elections. "The public should cooperate by recycling, by getting these coins out of their shelves.

New coins

The appeal came amid preparations by the BSP to redesign all coins and notes.

"We will make a public announcement later on as to the schedules of the demonetization," Guinigundo said.

When new coins are introduced, the older ones are phased out over a pre-determined period.

"The significance of this is that for the next 3 years there will be a co-generation of the old and new currency designs, but after that, there will be a demonetization of the old ones so people have to start recycling them," he said.

Proposals for new sets of currencies triggered the redesign of coins. One of the proposals is a new P500 bill that will carry the face of the late President Corazon Aquino side-by-side her husband’s. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr’s face is currently printed on the bill.

Guinigundo explained that, as a rule of thumb, monetary officials change the design of money every 10 years, partly to give counterfeiters a hard time.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Gov't hands out free condoms with Valentine's flowers

MANILA - Men buying flowers on Saturday for Valentine's Day were given something else for the weekend in the Philippines, Asia's staunchly Roman Catholic outpost -- free condoms.

The health department set up 2 tents and booths carrying the slogan "Are You Sexually Active?" at Manila's Dangwa wholesale flower market on the day before St. Valentine's.

They also handed out leaflets promoting them as safeguards against sexually transmitted diseases with the "Be Safe Always, Valentine" packs of condoms.

Some men laughed openly as they accepted the handouts from government health workers, led by the department's chief epidemiologist, Eric Tayag.

But President Gloria Arroyo's government, wary of the dominant church's opposition to birth control, promptly distanced itself from the promotion.

"Our policy on condoms is very simple: We do not give out condoms for contraception," Arroyo spokesman Ricardo Saludo said on government radio.

"If they want to use it for other matters, that is none of our business."

Tayag however defended the promotion, saying the government needed to act to check the rising number of AIDS infections in the country.

"Most people who have AIDS don't even know they already carry the virus," he told reporters.

He suggested there was a low degree of public awareness of the danger, since "some people seem to think that you can get the virus through kissing."

Last month, a government study showed that one in three newborns in the Philippines is unwanted or unplanned as the country struggles with a population explosion and the Church's opposition to birth control.

The Philippines population is projected to reach 94 million this year, up by more than five million from the 2007 census count.

The Roman Catholic Church forbids artificial birth control and has consistently opposed population control programmes. As a result, the government is reluctant to fund family planning schemes.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Zuño: Public service can be ungrateful

MANILA , Philippines – On Monday, Jovencito Zuño caps a 35-year career in public service, of which 13 years were served as Chief State Prosecutor.

Among Zuño’s career highlights include the successful prosecution of former President Estrada for plunder in connection with insider trading in the Belle Corp. stocks; the convictions of former Calauan Mayor Antonio Sanchez for rape-slay; Zamboanga del Norte Rep. Romeo Jalosjos for rape of a minor; and, Hubert Webb and others for the Vizconde massacre.

Despite these achievements, Zuño is leaving his post with a bitter aftertaste. A year before his retirement, he got dragged into a drug-related bribery controversy, and just a week ago, he was slapped with graft charges.

As the Office of the Special Prosecutor is to the Ombudsman, the Chief State Prosecutor heads the prosecution arm of the Department of Justice. He exercises supervision and control over the National Prosecution Service (NPS), a bureaucracy of 1,750 prosecutors nationwide.

In the division of functions in the prosecutorial units of the government, the NPS is in charge of cases involving public officials whose salary grades are below 27. It is also deputized by the Ombudsman to prosecute graft cases to be filed before regular courts, and the prosecution of public officials for crimes that are not service-related.

Among the high-profile cases being handled by DOJ prosecutors are the double murder case against Senator Panfilo Lacson for the killing of publicist Salvador 'Bubby' Dacer and his driver Emmanuel Corbito, and the Maguindanao massacre allegedly perpetrated by the Ampatuan political clan.

But unlike the Office of the Special Prosecutor, which enjoys relative autonomy from the Ombudsman, the Chief State Prosecutor is under the control of the justice secretary, who is an alter ego of the President.

Still, while its powers may be clipped or undermined by whoever is the justice secretary, the Chief State Prosecutor cannot be unilaterally removed since it is a permanent position with security of tenure.

Pressure from all sides

Prosecutors are the first to build cases. They conduct preliminary investigation to determine probable cause for the filing of a complaint or information before the proper court. Cases may either prosper or be dismissed based on their appreciation.

As head of the NPS, Zuño says his post was a natural magnet for pressure. He recalled being dressed down once by a former justice chief who wanted a bouncing check case dismissed. The former boss was reportedly acting on behalf of a local politician, now a senator, who wanted the case junked.

Defending his post’s independence has been a daily struggle.

Politicians, friends and power brokers would drop by or call his office asking for favors. “I try to accommodate them as long as it would not compromise my job,” he says in an interview with days before his retirement.

Still, “some say I am not a team player. They say I am independent-minded,” he adds.

This apparently was the reason why he failed to get appointed as Ombudsman, and later, as a commissioner of the Commission on Elections. He admitted applying for the posts “for a change of environment.”

Zuño says he was told that he did not get Malacañang’s nod “because I was too independent-minded.”

But others point out that Zuño was bypassed because he lacked political connections.

Prosecutors we interviewed agree that Zuño lacked political savvy or was simply naive. “He does not know how to play along. His virtue was his downfall,” one prosecutor says.

In the DOJ, it was an open secret that Zuño and his former boss, chief presidential legal counsel Raul Gonzalez, did not go along well. “I only go to his office when called. It is not my nature to indulge my bosses.”

Too trusting

Zuño was also was too trusting, and some people took advantage of this alleged weakness.

“Fixers are constant fixture in his office,” one lady prosecutor says. “Whether he is aware of it, it has affected the morale of some of us.”

It has also emboldened some prosecutors to corrupt the system.

It came as no surprise to some when Zuño was dragged into the Alabang Boys drug controversy. Guilty or not of the accusation, many say Zuño was an easy target.

The Presidential Anti-Graft Commission meted Zuño with a 90-day suspension over the drug case involving 3 high-profile suspects – Jorge Joseph, Joseph Tecson, and Richard Brodette.

Zuño, along with 4 other prosecutors, were accused of accepting bribes from the accused, a charge which they strongly denied. Zuño appealed his suspension before the Supreme Court, which, in turn, remanded the case to the Court of Appeals (CA),

A week before his retirement, graft charges were filed against Zuño and 4 other prosecutors for allegedly mishandling the case of suspected diamond smuggler, Siu Ting Alpha Kwok.

He and his co-accused were also charged with violation of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, and conduct prejudicial to the service and public interest.

Zuño denied the allegations, saying due process was observed in the investigation conducted by the panel of prosecutors and the subsequent release of the resolution.

“I did not know what hit me,” he says.

‘Ungrateful job’

Zuño says the Alabang Boys controversy was the lowest point in his life. “Sometimes, I regret spending 35 years in public service. Public service can be an ungrateful job.”

A few weeks ago, he says he received a call from Malacañang that his suspension had been lifted, but he found it hard to be pleased with the information. “I have to redeem myself. I still want the CA to rule on my suspension to prove my innocence.”

Zuño says he could not help but think that Malacañang was after his post early on. “It was as if they wanted me out of my position with all these pressures.”

In hindsight, Zuño says he should have applied for a post in the Court of Appeals, which would have spared him from controversies.

He says Chief Justice Reynato Puno Jr. once egged him to seek a CA post, but he was not interested. When he and Puno later met in a gathering in Cagayan de Oro, Puno told him: “Ikaw kasi, hindi ka nag-apply sa CA.”

Still, Zuño says he is proud that he is leaving the job with a legacy. “I worked in doubling the salary of prosecutors. Maybe, anytime soon, President Arroyo will sign the bill.”

Loren primed for the vice-presidency

MANILA, Philippines - Nationalist People's Coalition vice-presidential candidate Loren Legarda believes she can win the May 10 election.

The candidate, who is accused of being a political butterfly, is now being castigated for partnering with Nacionalista Party standard-bearer Manny Villar despite voting for Villar's removal as Senate president due to the C-5 controversy.

Legarda says her partnership with Villar is a function of their similarities. She says Villar came "from the slums of Tondo. I come from the floods of Malabon.”

A Ten Outstanding Young Men and Women (TOYM) awardee, Legarda studied in the exclusive Assumption College from primary to high school. As a former news anchor, Legarda is known by insiders for demanding touch-ups of her face, neck and under her eyes in video post-production. She also once required a hand model in a political ad.

All these, however, are unimportant to her. What is important, she says, in what is perhaps one of Storyline’s coldest and most rigid interviews, is that the public sees her as a candidate that is sincere and genuine.