NO DISCUSSIONS between fruit producers in the region and the Department of Agriculture has been conducted amid the onslaught of the El Niño phenomenon in the country, a weather system that will cause drought and extremely low rainfall.

Being an agricultural area, Southern Mindanao is one of the country's producers of fruits, particularly durian, mangosteen, lanzones, citrus, and mangoes. For international export, the region produces bananas and pineapples.

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Except for mangoes and citrus, most of the fruit produce are expected to be heavily affected by the drought caused by the El Niño phenomenon.

"We have not yet discussed it with the DA, but we told other farmers to prepare. They must rehabilitate their irrigation systems if they already have one, but if none, they should start putting up their irrigation system," said Larry Miculob of the Southern Mindanao Fruits Council during yesterday's Club 888 forum at the Marco Polo Davao.

The entire Davao provinces have been identified by the Agriculture Department as "moderately vulnerable" to the effects of El Niño, which will last until middle of 2010 despite the cool and overcast weather being experienced.

Late December, Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap created a task force to carry out mitigating measures to avert the adverse effects of the dry-spell on the crop production of the country.

The task force, which will implement the DA's El Niño Mitigation Program, will focus on 23 "highly vulnerable" areas and 24 "moderately vulnerable" areas in the country which includes Sarangani, South Cotabato, Ilocos Sur, Ilocos Norte, La Union, Pangasinan, Cagayan, Aurora, Bataan, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Tarlac, Zambales, Cavite, Rizal, Occidental Mindoro, Palawan, Capiz, Iloilo, Negros Occidental, Misamis Oriental, and Zamboanga City.

Davao City and Davao Region provinces have been categorized as moderately vulnerable to the El Niño phenomenon alongside with the provinces of Abra, Apayao, Benguet, Ifugao, Mt Province, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, Quirino, Batangas, Laguna, Quezon, Romblon, Sorsogon, Aklan, Antique, Bohol, Samar, Zamboanga Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga Sur, and Bukidnon.

El Niño refers to the unusual warming of sea surface temperatures along the equatorial Pacific that is usually characterized by below-average rainfall.

The DA identified the rice or palay sector as one of the major sectors vulnerable to El Niño. The phenomenon is projected to cause a production loss of 2.36 million metric tons (MT) worth some P40 billion, covering an area of 620,000 hectares.

Corn is another vulnerable sector identified with projected losses of 1.26 million MT worth P16.4 billion, covering 350,000 hectares.

The task force was created after the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) announced that following the spate of typhoons, which hit the country, it would now experience below-average rainfall as a result of El Niño, which was confirmed in June this year and could last till early 2010.

The alleviation program of the DA is expected to need a budget of P2.58 billion to implement, including cloud seeding operations; installation of shallow tube wells, rain pumps and drip irrigation systems; construction of small water-impounding projects; development of water springs; provision of hybrid seeds, farm implements and fertilizers to farmers; and the distribution of animal stocks, biologics and drugs for livestock growers.

Aside from palay and corn, other sectors vulnerable to the El Niño are coconut, which could impact on 610,000 hectares of production areas and sugarcane, of which 30,000 hectares are vulnerable.

The livestock sector could also be moderately affected by the abnormal weather phenomenon once there is an acute lack of water and extreme heat, he said.

Meanwhile, about 30,000 hectares of inland fisheries areas are also vulnerable to El Niño.

Among the strategic components of El Niño Mitigation Program are irrigation and water availability, which would involve applying different irrigation technologies and cloud seeding operations; and production support, which means making available farm inputs appropriate for prolonged dry and drought agro-climatic conditions.(CPM/Sunnex)