El Niño effects reported nationwide

THE INTENSE heat and its effects nationwide continue to dominate the current news cycle. The hot summer season from March to early May has exacerbated the effect of El Niño. The Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) issued its warnings about it as early as March last year. The high temperatures in recent weeks have been the highest recorded in recent decades. 

The El Niño is associated with “extreme climatic conditions” that includes heavy rains and high winds. In the Philippines, it is generally experienced as a dry spell and drought. The ongoing El Niño began to be felt in the country in July 2023.

Pagasa projected that it would last only until May 2024, with dry conditions peaking sometime in March or April. President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., still concurrent agriculture secretary at the time, ordered the formation of a dedicated El Niño task force in April 2023, a month after the state weather bureau’s announcement. 

The Department of Agriculture (DA) estimated that as of April 1, 2024, 53,879 hectares of crops have been affected, with rice being the hardest hit crop with value losses costing PHP1.72 billion, equivalent to 72,733 metric tons. In just ten regions (Bicol Region, Cagayan Valley, Calabarzon, Central Luzon, Cordillera Administrative Region, Ilocos Region, MIMAROPA, Soccsksargen, Western Visayas, and Zamboanga Peninsula,) the agricultural damage is worth PHP2.63 billion, with 54,203 affected farmers. 

News accounts picked up official announcements concerning preparations and eventually, once the conditions of El Niño strengthened in 2024, the impacts on commodities, livelihoods, and resources. 

CMFR reviews the media’s coverage of the different ways El Niño has been felt all around the country. 

Regional perspectives give face to issues

Rappler and GMA Integrated News displayed their strong regional presence in various reports that surfaced issues from the perspective of ordinary Filipinos, including interviews with community members instead of merely picking up official statements about the extent of agricultural damage in some provinces. 

Rappler’s accounts from October 2023 to April 12, 2024 discussed water supply woes in Bukidnon and Tawi-Tawi, the mounting cost of agricultural damage in Bicol and Western Visayas, and challenges to the livelihood of farmers and fisherfolk in Cebu and Negros Occidental. In reports issued from January 2024 to present, GMA Integrated News featured farmers’ groups, fisherfolk, and affected residents in Bulacan, Cavite, Cebu, General Santos City, Oriental Mindoro, and Zamboanga City

Tracking government aid

Media also followed the delivery of government aid to the victims of the disaster and measures of relief to affected areas. Most media (ABS-CBN News, BusinessMirror, Daily Tribune, GMA Integrated News, Inquirer.net, Manila Bulletin, Manila Standard, Philippine Star, Radyo5) echoed government announcements on the distribution of assistance to communities. 

But Bulatlat and News5 gave accounts of the El Niño experience from the perspective of those who were not reached by these efforts. 

Bulatlat revealed in a March 30, 2024 report that farmers were not being given subsidies and cash aid as promised, but were instead only provided with seedlings, fertilizers, and livestock. For farmers’ group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), the DA’s insistence that they can only provide cash assistance and subsidies after the El Niño is a “deception,” that only worsens the plight of the suffering farmers. In an April 5, 2024 follow-up report, KMP accused the government of “downplaying” the effects of El Niño to cover up its “negligence and sluggishness.”    

News5’s March 7, 2024 online article cited Amihan, a peasant women’s group, who similarly stressed the inadequacy of government assistance and described the cash aid as “too meager.” While government extended credit loans, these were insufficient to make up for the loss of crops. The group called for “free and efficient irrigation services” alongside immediate and augmented aid. 

The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s editorial on April 3, 2024 cited Amihan’s criticism of the government response as “useless and criminally neglectful,” especially because of the “miniscule” PHP3,000 to PHP5,000 promised to aid farmers. Inquirer.net reported on March 7 that minority bloc lawmakers in the House of Representatives filed a resolution for the DA to increase aid levels.

Criticizing delayed response

In its July 17, 2023 editorial, Philippine Daily Inquirer questioned the lack of preparation for the crisis since experts had already flagged the severity of El Nino’s impact. Economist JC Punongbayan in a March 8, 2024 Rappler column revealed that despite Marcos’ March 2023 announcement of the formation of an El Niño response team, the chief executive signed the executive order officially “reactivating” the El Niño task force only on January 19, 2024. 

As early as May 2023, Rappler noted the apprehension expressed by farmers and experts about the administration’s El Niño response. In the report, Emmanuel Piñol, former DA secretary, questioned the DA’s reliance on expensive interventions such as cloud seeding, which he explained would not be the most effective and prudent use of public funds. Instead, he urged the government to prioritize “long-term water management and conservation plans,” rather than its usual “dole-outs and farm inputs” (free fertilizers and seeds) which have not improved farmers’ “economic conditions.”  

Inquirer.net on April 10, 2024 noted that the president’s own sister, Senator Imee Marcos, called for an inquiry into how El Niño exacerbated the “recurring water crisis,” in the country. She added that delays and “lapses in planning,” caused public “suffering.”  

Disasters on the horizon

Pagasa has raised the alarm for a La Niña phenomenon later in the year. This phenomenon will bring increased rainfall that could start in June. Once again, government has to act more quickly to prepare for its impact. The lackluster response to El Niño flags more disasters in the horizon. With the threat of dry spells and soaring temperatures, Filipinos seem headed for a turbulent rainy season. 

Media’s task requires a review of the current experience, singling out the issues revealed by reports. Journalism as public service includes exposing the gaps and lapses in disaster preparedness as such information enables the public to push government to do what it must to hold off the worst impact of La Niña.