The Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) has warned of a possible spike in the prices of local vegetables and rice due to El Niño.

Meanwhile, the government has stepped up efforts to convert the country’s dependence on water supply from underground water to surface water, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said Monday.

FFF chairman Leonardo Montemayor, a former Agriculture secretary, said the lack of water during El Niño will adversely affect the production of crops, including vegetables.

“That will really depend on how severe the dry spell will be. A severe El Niño will have a critical effect on vegetables. However, a mild El Niño will have a lesser impact on crops,” Montemayor said.

The group said the Department of Agriculture – currently headed by the President as concurrent DA Secretary — should be able to prepare in advance measures to mitigate the impact on crops and encourage farmers to shift to planting crops less susceptible to El Niño.

Montemayor said farmers planting rice might opt to plant El Niño-resistant crops or crops that are less likely to be affected by the dry spell.

“The DA should prepare alternative planting materials such as vegetable or root crops, so farmers can easily adjust and shift their planting intentions to crops other than rice,” he added.

The President made his comment in a radio interview with former Social Welfare Secretary Erwin Tulfo, stressing the need for different government agencies to make the necessary preparations to address the looming dry spell or El Niño phenomenon.

“Because we are talking about water, there are many elements that need to be included in that talk. But we are slowly converting our dependence on water supply from underground water to surface water,” the President said in a mix of English and Filipino. “That’s the most basic, and then the distribution systems.”

“If you go to the distribution system of our water authorities, the pipes were installed during the war (World War II),” the President said.

Mr. Marcos, who recently signed an executive order creating a Water Management Office (WMO), said the government platform will help deal with the country’s water crisis.

“Our approach is to have enough supply of clean, safe water that even if the rain is scarce or El Niño occurs, we still have water supply,” he said.

The President said the government has ramped up its alert and warning systems to provide El Niño forecasts.

“We have strengthened the capacity of DOST, PAGASA so that we get an accurate warning that this thing is coming,” he said, referring to the Department of Science and Technology and the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration.

In a previous sectoral briefing, Mr. Marcos tasked agencies to come up with a whole-of-government strategy to address the El Niño phenomenon that may hit the country this year until early next year.

Two specific instructions given by the President are the adoption of a whole-of-government or whole-of-nation approach and putting up protocol-based and scientific long-term processes that could be adopted by the country.

The national government, he said, was empowering local government units in installing their own water supply systems.

If supply becomes insufficient during the dry season, the government would have to identify priority areas for distribution, the President said.

The National Water Resources Board (NWRB) earlier said it would prioritize domestic water supply once the water level in Angat dam hits 180 meters — its normal operating level.

Angat Dam supplies most of the water in Metro Manila.

PAGASA has projected that El Niño will begin by the third quarter of 2023 and will last until early next year.

El Niño is a weather phenomenon characterized by below-normal rainfall that can lead to dry spells and drought.

According to the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), climate change has a direct impact on food production, not only on vegetables but on a long list of water-dependent crops.

For the expected drought, the BPI has devised measures to lessen the impact of El Niño on food production.

“The bureau has a continuing intervention program to help farmers during the El Niño phase. We are managing irrigation to mitigate the effects on crops. We also advised farmers to defer plans to plant water-sensitive crops,” said BPI spokesperson Jose Diego Roxas.

The BPI noted new crops have developed that are climate smart such as new breeds of vegetables that can endure heat with little or less water.

These crops, it added, will help sustain farmers’ production and income while in the El Niño phase.

Several government and private institutions are also collaborating to develop new climate-smart crop varieties using advanced technology.

The government is also finding ways to innovate by collecting and repurposing rainwater to lessen the county’s dependence on groundwater, which is a finite resource.

All local government units are also encouraged to put up their own water supply system for more sustainable water usage.

As El Niño approaches, the government is expected to be ready with alternative measures and identify areas needing special support in case the country’s available water supply will not be sufficient to provide round-the-clock water service.

Also on Monday, the chairperson of the House committee on public works and highways stressed the need for the government to adopt “comprehensive engineering solutions” to help mitigate the impact of El Niño.

Surigao del Sur Rep. Romeo Momo, the panel’s chair, suggested this as he rallied behind President Marcos’s move to create an El Niño team to address the looming water shortage and improve public infrastructure to help mitigate the impact of the drought.

Momo said the President’s plan to upgrade the country’s flood control and water management by building impounding dams, small river impounding projects, and high dams is the “right move forward.”

“It is high time that an administration prioritizes the construction of critical infrastructure that would provide solutions to not only the effects of El Niño but to other weather disturbances and to climate change as well,” Momo said.

The lawmaker said the role of “comprehensive engineering solutions” that would last across generations even as he noted that “a well-constructed plan on dealing with El Niño would also benefit the future.”

This includes the creation of dams, catch basins, warning systems, levees, and seawalls.