MANILA, Philippines - A worsening drought is exacting a terrible toll on the world-famous mountain rice terraces of the northern Philippines, local officials said Tuesday.
A state of calamity was this week declared for the Banaue area that is home to many of the ancient stone-walled paddies and one of the Southeast Asian nation's most popular tourist destinations, the officials said.
"The tourists still come here, but all they see are parched fields and forest fires and leave disappointed," Abriol Chuliba, chief aide to the Banaue mayor, told AFP in a telephone interview.
The rice terraces, a United Nations World Heritage site and known locally as the "Eighth Wonder of the World", were built between 2,000 and 6,000 years ago using huge rocks for each step and a complex trickle-down irrigation system.
Banaue tourist information bureau officer Juliet Mateo said the rice paddies most frequented by tourists at Batad and Bangaan had dried up completely as much of the country suffered from an El Nino-induced drought.
Mateo said the rice harvest, which takes six months in the mountains compared with three months on the flats, was in danger of being ruined completely by the drought.
"The mountain rice was planted in December and January, but the way things are going there won't be anything left to harvest in June and July," Mateo told AFP.
She said Ifugao province governor Teodoro Baguilat had declared the state of calamity for Banaue on Monday. This allowed local authorities to tap into emergency funds to help farmers.
Chuliba said seasonal rains ceased completely last month, causing the mountain springs upstream of Batad and Bangaan that water the terraces to dry up.
"Not all areas are affected, but if this will continue until next month they won't be able to plant anything anymore," he said of the other terraces in Ifugao.
He said it was the worst dry spell he could remember in the area since another El Nino-induced drought in 1998.
The national government has said the drought, caused by cyclical warming of the waters of the Pacific Ocean, is set to last until the middle of the year.
The government expects the rice output of the Philippines, already the world's top rice importer, to decline further due to drought, forcing it to ship in more of the staple grain from abroad.
However the Ifugao rice terraces, which cover an area of 22,000 hectares (53,000 acres), are more important to the country as a tourism attraction than a source of rice.