Dry Well Scramble

by Juan L. Mercado

“Dig the well before you get thirsty”.  Did we heed this ancient Chinese axiom? Or did we twiddle thumbs over warnings that “El  Nino” would empty reservoirs, sear farms and  ration water?

Scientists at Britain’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research cautioned last August:  El Niño would blast,  by early 2010,  Pacific rim countries. So did  the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, The  US  Climate Prediction Center tracked warmer-than-usual readings 200 meters below ocean surface.

“El  Nino” is shorthand for shifts of +0.5 to +1.5 degrees centigrade, above average. This warms the eastern Pacific Ocean’s cold  water. This cyclical change, occurs every two to seven years,and unleashes destructive droughts. 

The 1997-98 El Niño parked catastrophic forest fires in Southeast Asia. Smog from blazing Indonesian forests blanketed airports in Davao and Puerto Princesa.

But, we are a laid-back country. Unless wells run dry, many assume they can draw water tomorrow.

“If this business-as-usual mindsets persist, many developing countries (read: Philippines) risk mortgaging their water security,”  cautioned Asian Development Bank vice president Ursula Schafer-Preuss.

Blackouts on election day could jeopardize Mindanao’s  12 million votes, Rep. Rufus Rodriguez (Misamis Or.) warned.  Emergency rule must address the island’s faltering power supplies.

Lake Lanao’s water level has dipped to only 19 centimeters above critical level due to El Nino. Hydro power plants, like  Bukidnon’s Pulangi station, is generating at half capacity. Three hour brownouts afflict Zamboanga.

Swamped by earlier storms like “Ondoy”, croplands today are  “desert-like” Inquirer reported.  Like Isabela,  Region II is bone-dry, ABS-CBN reports. So are Cagayan Valley, Pangasinan, Bulacan, Ilocos Norte, Camarines Sur, Negros and, Davao del Sur. There’s been a 10 percent drop in crop output like rice and  corn,  Agriculture Undersecretary Bernardo Fondevilla   estimates.   Dry taps, rice shortages and  pilas, form a lethal combination in a tense election year.

El Nino follows lingering effects from global recession and swine flu. It’s affecting wheat harvests in Australia and palm oil output in Malaysia and Indonesia. It also intensified drought in Latin America, the U.K’s  “Telepgraph” reports.

El Nino triggered a  “devastating food crisis in Guatemala, water cuts in Venezuela, an electric power crisis in Ecaudor. In Argentina,  fires razed 70,000 hectares of forests, land during the worst drought . The dry spell  seared  Paraguay’s Chaco region where indigenous people reside. “El Nino” adversely: affecting 2.5 million people, UN estimates.

“Take three minutes showers”, “President Hugo Chávez told Venezuelans.  “Ice cream sellers, in the capital Quito, were hit as their produce melted during daily five-hour power cuts. 

Government agencies here are scrambling to implement “mitigation measures.” President Gloria Macapgal Arroyo took note of the steep drop in Angat Dam water levels. She signed an Administrative Order that authorizes water supply cuts.

Unlike Burma or Malaysia, we’re not water rich.  In 2000, we had only 6,332 cubic meters of total actual renewable water resources per capita,   ADB  notes.  That dipped to 5,880 cm five years later.  “El Nino” sped up the plunge.

Children are specially vulnerable to water-borne diseases. Annual infant deaths, from diarrhea, exceed the toll of Mindanao armed clashes,  “Poisoned Wells” points out. “ 

This ecological decay spawns a Jekyll-and-Hyde paradox: From life giver, water morphs into a killer. “Indeed, it is a grave moral shortcoming if people can not drink water without courting disease or death,” Worldwatch  Institute’s Sandra Postel  stresses.

“Water shortages have become a critical development constraint in Asia,” the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization noted earlier. ”Overpumping is causing water levels to fall beyond the reach of shallow tubewells.  Soil fertility, in arid regions, has dramatically declined.  Abandoned pumps starkly symbolize this problem.”

But the flipside of dry wells need not be disasters. Water deficits can be turned into development opportunity.”

There is a big but.  Shortages must first faced up to. Whatever additional supplies are secured should be augmented by  conservation measures. And the total should be managed wisely.  

‘Second generation’ development schemes have emerged all over the world, FAO pointed out.  Israel, pioneered in use of  “low-volume  but high frequency use of limited water. Inland swamps can be linked to shallow aquifers and  small reservoirs. China calls these “melons on long stems.”

Rain harvesting techniques have become more efficient. Singapore blankets the island with rain harvesting devices. These make peri-urban food production possible. “It is more effective to harvest erratic rainfall than produce under unpredictable  rainfed conditions,” FAO adds.

These measures are useful.  But they’ll be of little help, if we scramble to adopt them when the wells have long gone dry.

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )


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