Water wars threaten Philippines mountain rice terraces
Mountain springs are the lifeblood of the majestic rice terraces of the northern Philippines, but keeping the emerald stairways to the clouds fit for tourist eyes sometimes required the spilling of blood.
Carved from the sides of towering peaks, some of the plots had gone untended over the past decade as tribes of Igorots, the hardy descendants of headhunters, fought deadly battles for control of the precious but diminishing water sources.
But following a truce in April, the irrigation canals have since been flowing again into the terraces on either side of the mountain, just in time to save the dry season crop of aromatic upland rice.
"We could have avoided this war," says Domingo Kally, the 64-year-old president of the irrigation cooperative of Fidelisan village on the outskirts of the tourist town of Sagada, some 4,000 feet (1,212 meters) above sea level.
"If only they had had more respect for the boundaries laid down by our forefathers," he says, reflecting on the long and destructive conflict with the village of Dalican, across the mountain to the east.
The water war had simmered since the 1990s as the Dalican folk dammed up the stream to divert the water to their village, leading to several killings, says Ben Mangacheo, an official of the government's National Irrigation Administration.
Living isolated lives amid moss-covered pine forests, the Cordillera peoples wielded battle axes until World War II and though the days of the grisly practice of headhunting are long gone, the warrior tradition dies hard.
Against Dalican "we used guns", says Kally, standing over an irrigation canal that bisects the village of galvanized iron-walled farm homes that sit on a ridge. Below lie the terraced plots, festooned with scarecrows to drive away seed-eating sparrows. -- "Next wars will be over water" --The Cordillera mountain range serves as the headwaters for eight major river systems that irrigate farms and provide tap water to the northern Philippines.
But forest fires and land conversion into farming or cattle pastures has dried up some aquifers, says government forest ranger Alex Macalling, who is supervising a 6,150-hectare (15,190-acre) reforestation project funded by a loan from the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB).
"It has been said that this new century will see a crisis of water, and that wars may even be fought over water," ADB vice president Shin Myoung-Ho has said.
In Cordilleras blood has already been spilled, but the April truce saw a compromise with Fidelisan's ownership of the springs that feed the stream being recognised by the Dalican who in turn were guaranteed a share of the water.
"The Fidelisan people agreed to share because three of their people had been taken hostage," says Sagada Mayor Robert Baaten. "After the peace pact the Dalican people released the hostages."
The local governments decided early on that the dispute was beyond the scope of formal law. The municipal governments steered clear of the conflict after a warning by the village elders of both tribes, and no one was prosecuted for the killings.
The quarrel mirrored another bloody, long-running boundary dispute between the villages of Butbut and Betwagan in the northern Cordilleras, and to a lesser degree, Sagada's own longstanding disagreement with the neighboring Besao town over tap water access to a tributary of the Abra river.
The mayor points out that this dispute has been peaceful. "We will try to negotiate with the Besao people to allow us to build a dam," Baaten says.
"Disputes over water rights are becoming a frequent problem now," says provincial engineer Arsenio Dungail. "With the increased population, the water sources will not be enough to supply everyone."
A major earthquake devastated the northern Philippines 15 years ago and altered the course of Cordillera mountain streams.
"Right after the earthquake in 1990, when the sources of water for these areas were gone, some areas became denuded," says Cameron Odsey, the chief agriculturist of the Cordillera region.
"The spring water went underground." -- Forests pay as mines fail --The mountainous terrain and poor road networks make the five provinces of the Cordilleras -- populated by 1.4 million people who are physically related to the Mongols and the Ainu minorities of Japan -- among the poorest regions in the Philippines.
Its sole link to the outside world is a landslide-prone highway blasted out of limestone rock. The road, often covered in mist that reduces visibility to near zero, snakes across the brows of mountains that soar to more than 7,000 feet (2,121 meters).
Despite its rich mineral endowment, only two commercial gold and copper mines are in operation and its residents rely almost entirely on farming terraced plots by the side of the mountains, supplemented by government jobs and tourism.
Tourism is a major industry of the Cordilleras, but due to its remoteness visitors tend to be funneled into a few areas -- Baguio city and La Trinidad. Sagada is accessible only by dirt road and which is visited by backpackers who want to see the underground caves and Igorot coffins hanging on limestone cliffs.
Subita Dew-ey arrived in the upper reaches of the Cordilleras as a teenaged bride in 1958. She remembers helping her husband clear a pine forest in the town of Bauko, on the edge of the 5,100-hectare (12,597-acre) Mount Data National Park.
"When we first came here, the trees were so big two men could not wrap their arms around them," Dew-ey, a newly widowed 66 year-old tells AFP as she works her half-hectare (1,235-acre) cabbage patch.
But when rains are poor the crops fail and the children go hungry.
"One time we had to return to Cervantes," she tells AFP, pointing west with her stubby, dirt encrusted fingers to her native town on the lower reaches of the Cordilleras. "There we had to plant corn, yams, and cassava."
The demise of the mining sector due to low metals prices in the early 1990s, and more recently due to popular opposition based on environmental grounds, also swelled the population of the farm-dependent upland villages, Odsey says.
"When the mines closed, the miners went home and it had a major impact on the rural population," he says.
"They had left behind swidden farms for five, 10 years. Now they go back to these swidden farms, and communal lands are being claimed, leading to conflicts and tribal wars," he adds. [source]