SPECIAL REPORT: Solar-Powered Irrigation System: proposed solution fails to serve farmers in the time of El Nino

BAGUMBAYAN, Sultan Kudarat (MindaNews / 06 April) – For decades, farmers in Barangay Biwang have depended on rainfall to irrigate their farms.

To meet the water requirements during the dry season, brothers Danilo and Sammy Casa, who own at least two hectares of ricefield beside a creek, use a diesel-powered engine to pump water from the source. The cost is prohibitive: at least 15,000 pesos per hectare every cropping cycle.

In mid-2018, the promise of a better tomorrow came when they learned the village was to be a recipient of the Solar-Powered Irrigation System (SPIS). Everyone was excited about the change that was coming as they would no longer spend on fuel for the pump.

The P5-million Solar Powered Irrigation System (SPIS) is rendered useless beside an idle farmland in Barangay Biwang in Bagumbyan, Sultan Kudarat as the farrmers have yet to utilize this unit in their farrm. Photo taken on March 26, 2019. Photo courtesy of Keith Bacongco

Touted as a flagship project of the Department of Agriculture (DA), Secretary Emmanuel Piñol wrote on his Facebook Page on March 30 that since huge dams take years to construct, “the most logical option” that would quickly respond to the threat of El Niño would be the “sustainable small irrigation projects like the Solar-Powered Irrigation System, Ram Pumps where these are applicable and even windmill-powered water pumps.”

At an average cost of P6.7 million each unit, Piñol initially targeted to build 169 units across the country. That translates to at least one billion pesos.

On October 11, 2018, the state-owned Philippine News Agency reported from Iloilo City that Pinol announced during the Food Security Summit there that President Rodrigo Duterte “has committed 41 billion pesos for the establishment of solar-powered irrigation system in the Philippines in the next three years.”

Pinol has recently been talking about 44 billion pesos needed to build 6,200 SPIS to irrigate half a million hectares, purportedly to boost the country’s rice production.

But the proposed solution has failed to alleviate the plight of farmers in the time of El Nino in six SPIS areas for rainfed ricefields across the region. Region 12 has 10 SPIS facilities for rice, the seventh inaugurated on April 5 in Libungan, North Cotabato, and one for corn.

Upon completion of the 5 million peso facility in November 2018, Sammy and his fellow farmers could not wait to be trained to operate the SPIS but as of April 3, it has remained unused, the pump house padlocked, the reservoir containing only ankle-deep water stored during the test run on March 27. [Read related story]

“Wala man ma training pa ang mga farmers kung ano pag operate, nahadlok man kami maghilabot kay basi maguba. Ka mahal-mahal sina (We have not been trained to operate and we are afraid to try it because we might destroy that expensive unit),” Sammy said on April 3.

The contractor, he added, performed a “flushing test” sometime in December last year to show that the SPIS was functional.

Danilo is confident that the water source of the SPIS – the creek — has enough capacity to irrigate up to nine hectares based on the existing distribution pipes. The creek, he said, has never run out of water, even during seasons of drought. The water level could go down a bit but never has it dried up.

Kagawad Danilo Casa of Brgy. Biwang, Bagumbayan, Sultan Kudarat shows the intake structure with gabions of the solar-powered irrigation project site in his brother’s farm. Mindanews Photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno
Kagawad Danilo Casa of Brgy. Biwang, Bagumbayan, Sultan Kudarat shows the intake structure with gabions of the solar-powered irrigation project site in his brother’s farm. Mindanews Photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno

But there is a major problem: the intake pipe could not siphon water from the creek because its water level has gone down from the time the facility was constructed

Danilo said they were informed by a DA official that the best time to construct the SPIS is during the dry season and not during the rainy season – as the contractors did last year – precisely so that the pipe’s length could be measured more accurately, based on the lowest water level.

On March 27, village officials said personnel from the Department of Agriculture’s regional office (DA-12) led by Regional Director Milagros Casis inspected the SPIS and found that the intake pipe could not draw water from the source.

“Since it’s El Niño, the water level of the creek has dropped. Thus, the intake pipe was short,” Danilo said.

On April 3, Danilo said the DA personnel assured them the contractor would make necessary adjustments on the intake pipe on April 4.

But while the contractor’s representatives inspected the SPIS and performed another test that day, barangay councilor Ronnie Pimentel said no adjustments were made to the intake pipe.

In a telephone interview evening of April 5, Engr. Erwin Arguelles, Chief of the Engineering Division of the DA-12, asssured that technical adjustments were made.

He confirmed there was a problem with the intake pipe but added that “rectification” has been done and the system was operating again.

In fact, he said, the SPIS in Biwang will be turned over this month, depending on the availability of the Agriculture Secretary.

He said the DA team will return to Biwang on Monday or Tuesday to observe the performance of the unit. “Dry run for the whole day,” he said.

The P6.5-million Solar Powered Irrigation System (SPIS) in Barangay Manubuan of Matalam, North Cotabato is rendered useless beside a vast parched ricefield as its water sources dried up due to El Niño. Photo taken on March 25, 2019. Photo courtesy of Keith Bacongco

Useful but….

In Barangay Manubuan in Matalam, North Cotabato, farmers are also dependent on rain for their twice- a-year planting of rice.

Like the farmers in Barangay Biwang, farmers depend on diesel-powered pump to siphon water from a creek that cuts across the vast ricefield.

On May 22, 2018, the DA commissioned a 6.5-million peso SPIS supposedly to address the problem of water scarcity in the village.

Piñol, who served as Governor of North Cotabato from 1998 to 2007, posted on his Facebook page then that “in 10 days, the whole 40-hectare rice farming area could be served by the SPIS which was constructed at a cost of P6.4-M and completed in just 60 days.”

“The reservoir could hold 350 cubic meters of water and irrigate four hectares of rice fields every day,” he wrote.

“The system could fully irrigate four hectares in one day and could theoretically cover a 60-hectare area in 15 days,” Piñol wrote.

“The existing pipe-layout of the Manubuan, Matalam SPIS, however, only covers 40 hectares,” he further wrote.

But at the onset of the El Niño phenomenon early this year, the creek, the source of the SPIS, started to dry up, rendering the facility useless.

Village chief John Mark Pulangco, who grew up working in the farm with his parents, says the creek beside their farm always dries up during summer. More so during El Nino.

Since the SPIS was commissioned, they have used it only for two cropping cycles.

Pulangco acknowledges that the project is a big help to the farmers because operating diesel-powered pumps is expensive, at one liter per hour. “What if you operate it the whole day,” he asked.

But only around 15 hectares have been irrigated by the SPIS during each of the two cropping cycles it was used.

“If there would be additional pipes, maybe it could irrigate up to 40 hectares, he said

Arguelles said the farmers and village officials may have been fed “maling info” (wrong information). He explained that the SPIS unit in Manubuan was “designed up to 12 hectares” but during the actual operation, it reached 40 hectares.

While waiting for the rainy season, Pulangco said the provincial government funded the construction of the water impounding station beside the creek to be used as a future water source of the SPIS.

A typical SPIS is equipped with at least 10 horsepower pump, electronic controls to operate the pumps and solar panels mounted on top of a reservoir for an average of 350 cubic meters (Biwang, D. Lotilla). Some solar panels are mounted separately from the reservoir (New Janiuay, Palma Perez). Lateral pipes are laid down across the field to distribute water.

According to Arguelles, the 10 SPIS projects for rainfed ricefields in Region 12 are in North Cotabato’s barangays New Janiuay and Palma Perez in M’lang, and Manubuan in Matalam; Sultan Kudarat’s barangays Biwang in Bagumbayan, D. Lotilla in Isulan, and Kadi in Senator Ninoy Aquino.

The 7th was inaugurated in Libungan, North Cotabato on April 5, the unit in Pigcawayan also in North Cotabato, for turnover soon, and two more units in Libungan, still in North Cotabto. The 11th is in Sarangani, for corn.

All together, North Cotabato got most of the projects: seven out of 10 SPIS for rice.


In Barangay Kadi in Senator Ninoy Aquino town in Sultan Kudarat, village chief Seferino Libona said they have yet to see how efficient is the 6-million peso SPIS which targets to irrigate 20 hectares of farmland.

Libona said the project was completed sometime in December last year and the beneficiaries have sought his help to follow up with the DA-12 on the status of the SPIS.

Libona relayed that the would-be beneficiaries have been hoping to utilize the SPIS to irrigate their farmland, especially now amid El Nino.

“As the village chief, the farmers have been asking for my help because the project has been sitting there for four months already,” Libona said in a telephone interview on April 4.

He assured the SPIS has enough source of water because Kadi is surrounded by watershed.

Arguelles said adjustments had to be made to the suction pipe of the pump because of cavitation. “Nagkamali ang orientation” (there was a mistake in the orientation),” he said, adding it had to be adjusted so that if a flood happens, it will not be destroyed.

He said the SPIS there is also scheduled for inauguration this month.

The 5.3 million SPIS unit in Barangay D. Lotilla in Isulan, also in Sultan Kudarat, has yet to be turned over to the farmer-beneficiaries as of April 3. The 8 million peso SPIS in Barangay Palma Perez in M’lang, North Cotabato, was turned over on March 29 but has no distribution pipes. (See other story)

Aerial shot of the reservoirs for the fingerlings (left and middle) and reservoir (right) of the the P7.9-million Solar Powered Irrigation System (SPIS) in Barangay New Janiuay in M’lang, North Cotabato is rendered useless for lack of water supply due to El Niño. Photo taken on March 25, 2019. Photo courtesy of Keith Bacongco


On February 3, 2017, barely a year after he assumed the Presidency, President Duterte inaugurated what was to be the prototype SPIS unit in Barangay New Janiuay in M’lang, North Cotabato, the hometown of the Agriculture Secretary whose parents migrated from Pototan, Iloilo.

Pinol served as mayor of M’lang town from 1995 to 1998.

A month before the inauguration, a MindaNews report quoted Piñol as saying that “pumping out water from a pond just beside Jugos’ five-hectare property using a 10-horsepower water pump, the system is capable of submerging three to four hectares of rice fields in a day.”

He added that it could provide water to a contiguous area of between 50 to 100 hectares using a pipe distribution system.

But two years later, village chief Judy Palmares disclosed that the SPIS unit has not served its purpose because the pond has no sufficient water to irrigate the ricefields.

Since it was inaugurated, Palmares bared that the SPIS was able to irrigate only about half a hectare of ricefield.

She added that the SPIS could not just pump all the water from the pond because it could affect the fish in the cages owned by the Jugos family who also owns the pond.

The Barangay Local Government Unit passed a resolution on March 11, 2019 urging President Duterte to inspect the SPIS he inaugurated two years ago.

Palmares added that village officials are just acting on the complaint of the farmers, who were supposed to have benefited from the project especially during this dry spell.

No less than Piñol admitted in his Facebook post on March 15 that the two units in his home province are not working because of scarcity of water supply due to El Niño. He issued the statement after it was reported that the units had not served the farmers during the dry spell.

But on March 30, he wrote that “the most logical option” that would quickly respond to the threat of El Niño would be the “sustainable small irrigation projects like the Solar-Powered Irrigation System…”

State of calamity

On March 12, the Sangguniang Panlalawigan passed a resolution placing all 17 towns of North Cotabato under a state of calamity due to the extent of damage on agricultural crops.

As of March 22, data from the Office of the Provincial Agriculturist recorded the damage to rice sector has already reached P389 million covering 8,784 hectares and P286 million worth of corn had been lost in 8,289 hectares.

M’lang recorded the largest area of damaged rice farm with 3,850 hectares, the report showed.

The data also bared that the high-value crops sector also lost P38 million in 238 hectares. It added that at least 13,000 farmers have already been affected by the dry spell.

Learning curve

On March 26, Councilor Rogelio Quintero of New Janiuay said the SPIS has a lot of fixing to be done as some panels were missing and some parts and the wiring system seemingly destroyed.

VIllage councilor Danilo Casa shows the P5-million Solar Powered Irrigation System (SPIS) in Barangay Biwang in Bagumbayan, Sultan Kudarat that has yet to serve the farmers amid El Niño. Photo taken on March 25, 2019. Photo courtesy of Keith Bacongco

Quintero showed this reporter what looked like broken parts – and tangled wiring system of the solar panels.

In a visit on April 3, the solar panels had been dismantled. Some panels were piled beside the frame.

“I have no idea what they are planning to do with these panels because they (DA personnel) are not coordinating with us on what they are doing here,” an irked Palmares said in Ilonggo.

Arguelles said the panels were intended to be moved closer to the water source.(Read related story)

Meanwhile, Quintero said, the rice farm owned by Magbanua family has remained dependent on diesel-powered pump for their water requirement, even as it is the closest to the SPIS unit – only 30 meters away.

Quintero, who chairs the village committee on agriculture, said the owner spent so much because he utilized two diesel-powered pumps just to get water from the river at least 200 meters away.

In his Facebook post on March 17, Piñol confirmed that the SPIS unit in New Janiuay and in Manubuan were not working.

“We expected challenges because this is a new technology,” the DA chief added. “This is part of the learning curve as we embrace this new technology.”

“The unit in Manubuan, Matalam was used for two cropping seasons until the creek dried up while the unit in New Janiuay which was a prototype is now undergoing corrective works because it did not operate according to standards.”

Piñol said the units are not useless because “drilling operations are now being done in one of these units to establish a new water source.”

He further claimed that “water is expected to flow again within a month.”

However, Palmares could not say if the ongoing drilling operation is intended for the reservoir of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources’ (BFAR) fingerlings project or the SPIS.

“Wala abi coordination sa barangay kung ano mga ginahimo nila dira (They are not coordinating their activities with our barangay).

The P7.9-million Solar Powered Irrigation System (SPIS) in Barangay New Janiuay in M’lang, North Cotabato is rendered useless for lack of water supply due to El Niño. Photo taken on March 25, 2019. Photo courtesy of Keith Bacongco

The prototype SPIS unit in New Janiuay cost the taxpayers nearly 8 million pesos (PhP 7,998,725).

“Gusto lang namon ma-ayos na kay sayang ang kwarta sang katawhan kag mapuslan man sang mga tao. Indi pwede na kami na barangay officials magpabaya (We want it fixed because that’s people’s money and our constituents could benefit from it. Thus as barangay officials, we could not just ignore it),” she appealed.

The total project cost of the six SPIS units in New Janiuay, Palma Perez, Manubuan in North Cotabato; Biwang, D. Lotilla, and Kadi in Sultan Kudarat, is 38.7 million pesos. (Keith Bacongco / Special to MindaNews, with a report from Carolyn O. Arguillas)

Solar-powered irrigation facilities lie idle in North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat