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 http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/video/nation/regions/02/10/10/isabela-under-s...)
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 http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/tao/elnino/el-nino-story.html) "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: http://kidlat.pagasa.dost.gov.ph/cab/ensoadvi.htm)
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.
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.