Hope for farmers: Climate-smart rice revives idle lands in Zamboanga and Palawan, Philippines

Farmers and development agencies test new rice as the dry spell continues. With climate change affecting the production of food, there is no other route but to adapt.

Seed growers in Taytay, Palawan examine grain quality of climate-smart rice in testing fields during Farmer’s Day celebration. Photo: Raul Roldan/CTI-SEA


ZAMBOANGA DEL SUR—Rice that grow well in salty areas give idle lands near the sea an unlikely facelift. These areas can become productive croplands for salt-tolerant rice.

Salt seeps into lands because of over extraction of groundwater and rise in sea level. Today, climate impacts are heavily felt in Zamboanga as farm lands are devastated by drought or become flooded with salt-water. These put food security and livelihood at risk.

Felipe Dablo who farms shrimp, milkfish, and crab at Sitio Sulabot experienced these challenges for himself. Business was good until disease outbreaks killed off his shrimp. Since then, a big portion of his 100 hectare fish farm has been empty and more than a million pesos had been lost. Next to his pond, a 2000 square meter farm land lies unproductive because saltwater had soaked in the soil.

“The shrimp were dying off from the first month after seeding,” Dablo said.

Kumalarang has seen the increase of idle fish ponds due to chronic diseases. At the same time, rice farms have been abandoned due to the impact of climate change like drought and saltwater intrusion. According to Kumalarang Municipal Agriculturist Corazon Gomonit, at least 800 hectares of lands have become unproductive because of these.

Salt in the soil, salt on the cloud, and water-deprived lands

In November 2015, Gomonit and Dablo received a kilogram of Salinas 16, a type of rice that survives in salty soil. An ADB and GEF-funded project, Coastal and Marine Resources Management in the Coral Triangle – Southeast Asia (CTI-SEA) brought the samples from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for testing. In three months, Dablo harvested four sacks or 280 kilograms of Salinas rice from salt-laden soil where traditional rice varieties will not grow.

“I saw for myself how the rice grew from unusable soil,” said Dablo.

To help deal with the enormous loss caused by drought, Katihan, a high-yield variety that thrives well in dry areas is also being pilot-tested. Gomonit and Dablo are optimistic about the results of the field trials.

felipe pablo

“I think that it will help many Filipino farmers in Mindanao.”-Zamboanga del Sur farmer-entrepreneur Felipe Dablo on climate-smart rice

Many farmers hope for rain to come to revive farm lands affected by drought. A month after cloud seeding operations failed and losing P1.3 M in the process, Zamboanga was declared under a state of calamity in April 2016.

salt tolerant rice in kumalarang3
A close-up of newly harvested Salinas seeds.
EN_MAOCoraGomorit and Felipe Pablo
Municipal Agriculturist Corazon Gomorit and Felipe Dablo each hold a new batch of Katihan 2 and Salinas 19 rice seeds. Photo: Raul Roldan/CTI-SEA

Rethinking farming techniques

Zamboanga del Sur is CTI-SEA’s most recent pilot-testing site for climate smart rice. The first tests were done in Taytay, Palawan in 2013. This is part of the support to the town’s climate change adaptation plan.

In Taytay, roughly 10% of farm lands have been flooded with sea water. Additionally, drought has also affected farm productivity reducing rice harvest from 3.5 tons per hectare to around 1.5 to 2 tons per hectare.

Seed grower Rey San Jose has tested a number of climate smart rice in his farm which is near a mangrove stand in Sitio Quilala, Barangay Poblacion.

“Part of my farm close to the mangroves can’t grow rice anymore so I’m happy to have been introduced to the Salinas rice varieties,” said San Jose.

In December 2015, 52 farmers and seed growers from 16 barangays were invited to Farmer’s Day in Taytay to get familiar with IRRI-developed rice varieties. They saw for themselves harvest-ready rice in San Jose’s farm. These included salt-tolerant Salinas 15 and 16, high-yielding RC 222, and drought-tolerant Katihan. Many farmers chose Katihan for testing because several parts of Taytay are affected by drought.

More than two years after the Salinas variety was planted, a growing number of farmers and seed growers in and outside of Taytay are seeing the benefits of diversifying and innovating their practices.

Rice-ing to the challenge

Rice varieties that survive in flooded, drought-stricken, or in salt-affected farmlands may be one of the solutions for communities most affected by climate change, especially when it comes to producing food.

Katihan rice variety on testing site in Taytay, Palawan. Photo: Raul Roldan/CTI-SEA

“Projecting future climate is not perfect.  But we cannot wait for science to be completely certain of things to come before we take actions,” said Dr. Rosa Perez, climate change expert.

According to Perez, it may take a while before people realize that coastal flooding due to sea level rise is happening. On the other hand, salt water intrusion can occur more quickly than we thought.

These changes may have come faster than earlier climate projections. Thus, countries are looking into practical and sustainable ways to cope with their harmful impacts in the short term and to adapt and avoid them in the long term.

“Coastal agriculture, particularly rice production could be severely affected. Before we totally abandon the fields, we can shift to appropriate rice varieties. This would be a good immediate action to take to secure food and livelihood,” added Perez.

According to the Climate Change and Development report of UNDP, sea level rise may cause rice production to drop by 9 per cent. FAO estimates that sea level rise has begun to bring in salt to around 6.5 per cent or 831 million hectares of the world’s total land.

Perez also recommended that forward looking assessments be made. This is to determine the extent and duration the fields can be used for rice production, in terms of cost and benefits.

Taytay’s climate change adaptation plan has a set of integrated pilot activities which include testing of climate smart rice, mangrove reforestation, seaweed farming, early warning and disaster response and preparedness trainings, and health management and sanitation monitoring workshops.

Written by Dana Salonoy with inputs from Raul Roldan (Deputy Team Leader, CTI-SEA)

Dana Salonoy helps raise awareness on science and conservation as Knowledge Management Assistant for CTI-SEA.

This article was published by the Philippine Star on 8 May 2016.


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