The Technical Working Group on the Roadmap to Address the Impact of El Nino or RAIN has just had its 5th meeting this morning and we would like to share with you highlights of the agencies’ reports on the implementation status of the action plan of the government’s El Niño Task Force.

In retrospect, the President Benigno S. Aquino III designated NEDA as head of the El Niño Task Force in mid-2015. This move was prompted by forecasts from the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration or PAGASA that El Niño will intensify from moderate to strong in late 2015 until May 2016. With this, NEDA has convened the Task Force in a series of inter-agency meetings to discuss and finalize the RAIN, which was subsequently approved by the President. RAIN is aimed at mitigating the impact of the El Niño phenomenon on four areas: 1.) Food security, 2.) Energy security, 3.) Health, and 4.) Safety. This action plan focuses on 67 El Niño-affected provinces throughout the country, including Metro Manila.

With this, let me provide you a summary of progress of RAIN based on the reports and discussions of the TWG this morning.

Government has been fairly successful in mitigating the impact of El Nino, particularly in ensuring sufficiency in supply of food and keeping food prices stable. This is through a) production support like irrigation and distribution of seeds in non-vulnerable and mildly-affected provinces, b) timely importation, and c) price freeze in areas that declared state of calamity.

While drought usually entails low production leading to high agricultural product prices, inflation data show that prices of food, particularly rice, have been low and stable in the past months. In fact for March, despite the El Niño phenomenon, rice prices remain lower than in the previous year (-1.7% in March from -2.0% in February) and have been declining consistently since October 2015. Likewise, the price of vegetables, while remaining elevated since November 2015, has trended down after peaking in January 2016, declining by 2.9 percent in March 2016 from the previous month, for a total decline of 7.8 percent since the beginning of the year. Supply and buffer stock management is being done well with timely purchases. Moreover, despite the lack of water, there were no reported breakout of diseases and epidemic, though we do not discount that there could still be health issues in some places.

Also, according to the Social Weather Stations or SWS survey, conducted from December 5-8, 2015, the 2015 average hunger rate of 13.4 percent is the lowest annual average hunger rate since 2004. Moreover, hunger in Mindanao fell by 8.7 points from 21.7 percent to 13.0 percent. This brought the 2015 average Mindanao hunger rate to 15.8 percent, the lowest since the 13.3 percent annual average in 2005.

However, despite these encouraging numbers, we recognize that there could be areas that are feeling the brunt of El Niño and for this, the role of LGUs is very crucial. We are certainly bothered by the fact that there are people who still go hungry. There could be areas that are not yet being reached by government interventions.

While the supply of food and production and other types of support such as distribution of food packs seems enough, the challenge is in making the distribution system much more efficient so that these actually reach the affected families in a timely fashion. We need to consider that some of the services are devolved to LGUs and so we need to strengthen coordination with LGUs.

We need to increase support for farmers to augment their incomes. For this, we need to accelerate programs like cash-for-work and emergency employment.

We need to improve coordination within government from national to local levels and also communication with affected families. It is also very important that affected families know about the situation and know how to access government programs that are already in place. For this, hotlines have been established through 0920-8790924 for Smart and 09950383-2393 for Globe.

Finally, we would like to assure the public that government is doing its best to address the needs of affected areas and families, considering that they are among the poorest and most vulnerable sectors. As mentioned, we have been fairly successful in mitigating the overall impact of El Nino, but we need to accelerate implementation of RAIN to address remaining gaps.