Philippines heading for food and water overshoot

Posted: 12 May 2008

Author: Henrylito Tacio

Unless curbed, the population of the Philippines will grow to 100 million in five years even with the "low" population growth rate, according to former health secretary Alberto Romualdez, reflecting the new concern about the topic as food prices escalate.

The population growth rate of 2.04 per cent is not good news," he explained in a recent forum. "It means that we're going at 2 million persons a year. That is part of double whammy with respect to food. We have more mouths to feed, and food is costing more."

Denuded mountains, The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Denuded mountains, The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Denuded mountains, The Philippines© Henrylito Tacio
"Population and food production are two intertwined factors. You cannot ignore the other and hope to solve the country's woes," said Benjamin de Leon, president Forum for Family Planning and Development Inc.

Currently, the Philippines is home to almost 90 million people. In five years, the population is on course to reach 100 million in five years, according to the former secretary. The National Statistics Office puts the country's 2007 population at 88.57 million with a record-low population growth rate of 2.04 per cent.

Is that something be cheered about? It must be recalled that in the 1960s, Thailand and the Philippines each had a population of some 20 million people. Today, Thailand has only 66 million people.

"In Thailand, where there is access to contraception, uneducated women use family planning methods just like women with a college education," pointed out Martha Madison Campbell, the founding president of Venture Strategies for Health Development, a non-profit organisation based in Berkeley, California. "In the Philippines, where there is no clear national government support for a family planning programme, contraceptive use is less - especially among poor and uneducated women, leading to more unintended pregnancies and larger families."

Poor families

The surging population of the country has resulted to more poor people. In fact, the 2006 Official Poverty Statistics report released recently by the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) showed that the fast-growing population and the failure of household incomes to rise as fast as commodity prices have resulted in more poor Filipino families.

"Millions of Filipinos suffer from poverty due to large and unplanned families. Unless we give priority to the problem of ballooning population, every effort to counter poverty would be pointless," De Leon said.

The NSCB report said 4.7 million families - equivalent to 26.9 per cent of the total number of Filipino families - were poor in 2006, marking an increase from 4 million poor families in 2003. It added that the incidence ofpoverty -the proportion of those considered poor to the total number of families - was at 26.9 per cent in 2006, compared to 24.4 percent three years earlier.

"'Poor' refers to those whose incomes fall below the threshold determined by the government, or those who cannot afford to provide in a sustained manner for their minimum basic needs for food, health, education, housing and other social amenities in life," explained NSCB Secretary General Romulo Virola in a recent press conference.

Coastal pressure

A January report of the poll group Social Weather Stations (SWS) found 2.9 million Filipino families experiencing "involuntary hunger." That is well over the average in SWS quarterly surveys since mid-1998, with some of the biggest increases in the capital, Metro Manila, the poll group reported.

Deforestation adjacent to reefs increases sedimentation. Palawan, Philippines©   Lambert A.B. Meñez/ReefBase
Deforestation adjacent to reefs increases sedimentation. Palawan, Philippines© Lambert A.B. Meñez/ReefBase
Deforestation adjacent to reefs increases sedimentation. Palawan, Philippines© Lambert A.B. Meñez/ReefBase
The rapid growth of population has obliterated most of the natural coastline - estimated at 36,289 kilometres. Twenty-five major cities, including Metro Manila, Cebu and Davao, lies on the coast. About 62 per cent of Filipinos live in the coastal zone. "Almost all beach forest has been converted into settlements," said the World Bank report on coastal and marine resource management. About half of the seagrass beds have been lost or degraded since 1950. "And the rate of degradation is increasing due to land reclamation and pollution," the report added.

The ecologically-fragile coral reefs are not spared. "Almost all Philippine coral reefs are at risk due to the impact of human activities, and only 4 to 5 per cent remain in excellent condition," said the World Bank report.

Mangrove forests also suffer the same fate. They have been converted to fish farming, salt production, and human settlement. In 1918, mangroves covered 450,000 hectares. Today, only 138,000 hectares remain.

Most shore ecosystems near urbanized areas are threatened by nutrient loading. A recent study of major fishing grounds found that organic nutrients were affecting water quality including high levels of heavy metal in some areas.

Water quality

As a result of these destructions, fish - the poor man's source of meat - is greatly affected. "All fisheries are showing decline in total catch and pet unit effort (total number of fish caught per unit of time) despite increasing effort," the World Bank report claimed.

Estimates show that if the present rapid population growth and declining trend in fish production continue, "only 10 kilograms of fish will be available per Filipino per year by 2010, as opposed to 28.5 kilograms per year in 2003," the World Bank report warned.

The nearly 2.2 million metric tons of organic pollution produced by the ever growing population has also deteriorated the water quality of the country. In 24 provinces, one of every five residents drinks water from dubious sources, the Philippine Human Development Report says.

Water-borne diseases diarrhea and respiratory infections, especially among poor children, made up 20 per cent of the causes of death in the country. Today's "crisis in water and sanitation is - above all - a crisis of the poor," says the new United Nations Development Program study: Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Water Crisis

The World Bank's report on water quality projected that by 2025, Metro Manila and other areas in Southern Tagalog will experience a shortfall of water supply "if no water management program is in place." Three of the six largest lakes in the country (Laguna de Bay, Lake Taal, and Lake Naujan) are located in the region and most of areas near these basins are crammed with people.

Shrinking forests

Environmentalists claim that shortfall of water supply can be traced to the rapid disappearance of the country's forest cover. Of the country's total forestland area of 15.88 million hectares, only 5.4 million hectares are covered with forests and fewer than a million hectares are left with old growth forests.

"Over-exploitation of the forest resources and inappropriate land use practices have disrupted the hydrological condition of watersheds, resulting in accelerated soil erosion, siltation of rivers and valuable reservoirs, increased incidence and severity of flooding, and decreasing water supply of potable water," the World Bank report said.

"There is no time to waste to ensure that the country has enough land for growing food for today's families and also to have remaining forests for tomorrow's children," Campbell urged.

Based on data released by the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, de Leon said that by 2050, "the country will have only 28 per cent natural habitat, or land that has not been converted to human use." By that time, he added, at least 296 Filipinos will have to share with each other every square kilometer of land in the country.

Henrylito Tacio is Planet 21 Contributing Editor for South East Asia.