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When the heavens stay dry people die

ARAKAN (UCAN): Swathes of corn stalks bend their sad and withered heads towards the parched earth on the rolling hills surrounding the farming town of Arakan in the southern Philippines, while shallow cracks mock the hapless farmers who planted the seeds with high hopes of a good crop.

The dry skies brought about by the El Niño effect are wreaking havoc on the rich soil of Cotabato province.

Allan Salon, a member of the Manuvu people, says life is hard these days.

There is nothing to harvest and hunger is rife. In the village of Malibatuan, people only eat once a day with the children getting most of what there is.

Desperation and hunger forced Salon and his brother, Lito, to join their neighbours in heading to the provincial capital, Kidapawan, on March 29.

The village leader said everyone who went to the city would get a sack of rice.

The two brothers believed that they would return home that same afternoon with their bags of rice. “I was told we would be going to join a picket,” Salon said. “But I did not know what that meant.”

He added, “We went because we were told the governor would give a sack of rice to each of us.”

Along with 6,000 other poor and hungry farmers and tribal people, the Salon brothers gathered on the blocked highway linking the Cotabato and Davao provinces in Mindanao.

Reports from human rights agencies say that at least three people were killed when police moved in to break up the blockade on April 1.

The state Commission on Human Rights identified at least two of the victims—Enrico Fabligar, a bystander from Kidapawan, and Darwin Sulang, a farmer from Arakan.

Sulang’s friend, who asked not to be named, says they also went to Kidapawan thinking they were going to collect rice.

Lito Salon also didn’t make it home. After sleeping rough for several days, he complained of back pains and a headache. On the evening of April 3, he was rushed to hospital in the neighbouring town of Antipas where he died.

His wife, Margarita, says her husband died from sunstroke.

Human rights advocates say the blockade was a desperate cry for help from farmers enduring one of the worst droughts on record.

The international aid agency, Oxfam, says the Philippine government needs to immediately provide adequate food and livelihood assistance to farmers suffering from the ongoing drought in the southern part of the country.

“In times of crisis, the most vulnerable must be supported and protected,” Jermaine Bayas commented.

Melody Ababon, who gathers banana stalks near her home in the town of Kibungan to feed her cow, said that she is also facing hard times.

She explained that the animals have nothing else to eat. “The fields are dry and the bananas are slowly going too,” she pointed out.

Before the dry spell, she says that her cow was fat.

Now its ribs are sticking out. “Some farmers have already sold their animals to buy food,” she says.

In the town of Pigcawayan, Nonoy Domaguit says he has already sold a pair of goats because the animals have nothing to eat.

“I did not want to sell them, but I pitied them because they have nothing to eat,” he said.

Worse is yet to come.

There are thousands of similar stories from farmers in the now-water deprived farming area. Crop failures and starving livestock are a common scene in the southern Philippines.

At least 135,000 families have been affected across the country by the drought, 95 per cent of them are in Mindanao.

Last year the United Nations warned that the El Niño effect would bring prolonged dry spells on par with those caused by the same thing in 1997, which was considered the worst in 50 years of accurate data gathering.

In The Philippines, it reduced rainfall by half and agricultural production by almost eight per cent. It seriously affected 74,000 hectares of agricultural land in 18 provinces.

Data from the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics show that the volume of rice production fell by 24 per cent and corn 12 per cent between 1997 and 1998.

The impact was most felt in Mindanao. More than 74 people died and almost half a million agricultural families starved because of the drought. Shortage of potable water was also reported.

These figures serve as a bad omen for the farmers of 2016.

One farmer in Antipas saw his usual crop of rice slashed from 300 sacks to 70 last month. He is well aware of what happened in 1997 and is worried. “It seems that the worst is yet to come,” he says.

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