Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said the signing of the free irrigation bill - which has been on President Duterte's desk since January 4 - would sustain the farm sector's turnaround, which posted a 3.97% growth last year, after posting a 1.4% dip in 2016.
Recto said the bill for the chief executive's signature grants free irrigation to farmers owning not more than 8 hectares of land, and condones unpaid irrigation fees by farmers who till the same size of land.
The bill "writes in stone" the Duterte administration's suspension of the collection of irrigation fees, he said. "By making such a policy into a law, the idea is to make it permanent and durable, so it can't be easily repealed by executive action."
Once signed into law, Recto said irrigation fees - pegged at the price of two cavans of palay per hectare during the wet season, and three cavans during the dry months - are waived.
"It may just be cappuccino money for coffeeshop regulars, but for those who work the land in never ending penury, those three cavans could spell the difference between famine or feast," Recto said.
Recto said free irrigation will not harm the financial bottomline of the National Irrigation Administration.
"Foregone revenue is about P1.5 billion a year. But this will be recouped through appropriations. Kung ano ang nawala, i-re-refund sa national budget, which is reflected in the 2018 General Appropriations Act."
"Compare this P1.5 billion to the P6.7 billion in intelligence funds for 2017, or the P17.9 billion in travel expenses of bureaucrats last year," Recto said.
"Isa pa, if we are raring to build a Metro Manila subway worth gazillions of pesos, then we should also apply the same bold thinking in bringing billions of gallons of water to our farms through more water canals," Recto said.
Recto said the enactment of the bill will also not hamstring the NIA from expanding its coverage area. "Sa taong ito, P40.8 billion ang budget ng NIA, P2 billion more than its allotment last year."
But Recto said expanding "the irrigation footprint" is the greatest challenge. At present, of the three million hectares of irrigable land, only 1.7 million are irrigated, leaving a backlog of 1.3 million hectares.
Last year's NIA budget of almost P39 billion, "while impressive on paper," was only enough to build new irrigation in 29,000 hectares of farmland and repair facilities existing in 18,000 hectares.
"At the rate we are appropriating, which is compounded by the slow utilization of funds, it will take us 45 years - almost half a century - to wipe out the deficit," Recto said.
"The funds for the expansion of the service area remain a drop in the bucket of what is needed. This drip-drip of funds must end. The farm sector should also be part of the 'Build, Build, Build' drive," Recto said.
Recto said the state of irrigation has an impact on how much food is on the table.
"We can only coax six tons of rice out of a hectare of unirrigated land. With irrigation, production rises to 8.6 tons. So as water supply increases, food imports recede, and hunger retreats," he said.
Recto is co-author of the consolidated Senate bill which, after it was reconciled with the House version, was sent to Malacanang for Duterte's signature.
Senator Lacson was first to file a bill on the said subject in the Senate, followed by Recto, Zubiri, Villar, Legarda, Ejercito, Gatchalian, Gordon.
The bill was principally sponsored by Senator Cynthia Villar, who, Recto said, "ably defended the bill, skillfully shepherded it through the Senate, passionately sold it to executive officials, and brilliantly handled the negotiations with the House."
Corporate farms, plantations, fishponds, and those drawing water for non-agricultural purposes are not covered by free irrigation.
Source: Senate of the Philippines