This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Contents - Previous - Next

4. Selection of the Bicol river basin

An economically depressed region on the southwestern end of the Luzon peninsula, the Bicol River Basin manifests almost classic characteristics of marginal areas in developing countries. The Basin's marginality is owed in part to its physical isolation from Manila and other regions of the Philippines and to a physical environment that is hostile to productive activity for much of the year. Income is low and inequitably distributed. Production and marketing technologies are inefficient compared to the rest of the Philippines and other Asian countries. Infrastructure and capital are scarce and local government institutions are weak and ineffective. High rates of population growth prevent appreciable increases in standards of living even in developing sections of the Basin, and in much of Bicol the land-tenure arrangements constrain increased agricultural production and more equitable distribution of income, Poverty and the lack of modern sanitation facilities perpetuate widespread health and nutrition problems.

Background and Conditions

The Basin is a sub-area of the Bicol Region consisting of two provinces-Camarines Sur and Albay-with 700,000 acres of land, about half of which are arable, and nearly 1.8 million people. (See Fig. 1.) For decades, the Bicol River Basin has experienced high levels of rural poverty. The predominantly subsistence agricultural economy has created chronic underemployment and serious malnutrition among the population and encouraged relatively high rates of migration. In 1971, over 80 per cent of the population had incomes below the national poverty level. By 1975, nearly 90 per cent of the Basin's families had annual incomes below the poverty threshold and nearly 65 per cent had incomes of less than half of the poverty mark, classifying them as the "poorest of the poor" (Table 1). About 28 per cent of the labour force is either unemployed or seriously underemployed, and non-agricultural job opportunities in the Basin's towns and villages are limited. Income levels of the Bicol River Basin's population are not only low, but income and wealth are inequitably distributed. Ten per cent of the households in the Basin receive 43 per cent of the total income, and the poorer 50 per cent of the population receives only 13 per cent of income. The poorer half lives on about US$45 per capita a year, only enough to buy rice, occasionally some fish, and the barest necessities of life.

TABLE 1. Regional Poverty Threshold and Income Levels, Philippines 1971 and 1975

Region Number of families
(in thousands)
Average family incomes
(in pesos)
Families with income below food threshold, 1971 Families with income below poverty threshold, 1971
1971 1975 1971 1975 Number (000s) Per cent Number (000s) Per cent
Ilocos 346 558 3,299 5,525 213 72.6 447 85.2
Cagayan Valley 260 329 2,390 5,102 231 75.8 293 84.8
Central Luzon 855 662 4,127 5,773 224 36.5 178 68.5
Southern Tagalog 869 888 4,332 5,441 436 30.6 466 54.5
Bicol 496 518 2,784 4,280 351 70.9 759 87.3
Western Visayas 670 679 3,260 5,484 418 65.3 419 84.5
Central Visayas 980 441 2,548 4,834 388 70.7 572 85.4
Eastern Visayas NA 595 NA 5,172 718 73.3 847 86.4
Western Mindanao 522 370 3,062 3,803 NA NA NA NA
Northern Mindanao 825 433 3,577 6,307 339 65.1 449 86.1
Southern Mindanao NA 314 NA 5,662 480 58.3 654 79.8
Central Mindanao NA 301 NA 5,025 NA NA NA NA
Manila and suburbs 525 770 7,785 10,469 128 24.7 NA NA
The Philippines 6.347 6.869 3.736 5.480 3.774 59.0 5.039 79.4

Sources: National Census and Statistics Office, Special Release No. 190, and National Economic and Development Authority, Statistical Yearbook, 1975. Manila: NEDA, 1975.

FIG. 1. Map of the Philippines, Bicol River Basin and Integrated Development Areas, 1979

Standards of living in the Basin are far below those of the Philippines. Although outright starvation is not prevalent in the area, 80 per cent of pre-school children suffer from serious malnutrition. A majority of the population is inflicted with waterborne enteric diseases and intestinal parasitism, resulting from contaminated water supplies and poor environmental sanitation. Nearly 73 of every 1,000 infants born in the Bicol River Basin die during their first year, primarily of pneumonia, gastro-enteritis, and bronchitis. There is only one physician for every 4,600 people and most of the doctors are located in larger towns, inaccessible to rural people. Surveys estimate that no more than one-quarter of all women living in the Basin have ever visited a health clinic, hospital, or family planning centre; most rural families seek assistance from healers, or from midwives during pregnancy. Housing conditions outside of the larger towns are also poor. In rural areas homes are built of scrapwood and nipa, with grass roofs and bamboo or dirt floors. Less than one-third of the Basin's households have adequate water supplies or sanitary toilets. Sounder structures, more typical of the towns, are scattered in rural barangays, but the overwhelming majority of houses throughout the Basin are constructed of weak building materials and are highly susceptible to fire, flooding, or destruction during typhoons. Few homes are served by piped water or electricity; in the vast majority kerosene or wood is used for lighting and cooking.

The population growth rate of 3.3 per cent a year results in a high dependency ratio-nearly half of the population is under 14 years old-and more than one per cent of the population migrates out of the Basin each year. Most migrants are younger, more productive people seeking job opportunities in larger towns outside the Basin, and usually in metropolitan Manila. The Bicol Region, of which the Basin is a part, has had the lowest net domestic product (NDP) in the Philippines over the past decade; it declined in real terms by an average of 1.5 per cent between 1972 and 1974, at a time when the national average was growing by nearly 4 per cent. The Bicol Region in the early 1970s had the lowest share of employment and production among all regions in the Philippines as well as the lowest proportion of modern manufacturing establishments to population in the country. Indeed, the only industrial capacity in the Basin takes the form of small, family-owned agro-processing and cottage industries. Nearly all manufactured goods sold in Bicol are imported from Manita.

Development Problems

Ironically, most Bicolanos live in poverty in a land of great natural beauty and abundant natural resources (Fig. 2). Properly irrigated and cultivated, the Basin's rich alluvial soil could produce enough rice to sustain an additional 8 million people. Production of corn, abaca, sugar, coconuts, and vegetables is only a fraction of the Basin's potential under favourable conditions. The Bicol also has a wealth of untapped mineral resources-about 30 per cent of the marble deposits, 75 per cent of the perlite and about 20 per cent of the coal reserves of the Philippines. The Tiwi geothermal plant, located on the Basin's northeastern border, will soon generate substantial amounts of relatively cheap energy.

But as a regional economy, the Bicol River Basin currently is poorly equipped for increased productivity and widespread development. Through much of the year the Basin is battered by frequent typhoons, bringing high winds and heavy rains. The perennial flooding destroys crops and homes, pushes saline water into interior rice fields and causes widespread silting and erosion. The area is physically isolated from the rest of the Philippines during the worst of the typhoon season and poorly linked to other regions or to Manila even during good weather. A single paved highway that weaves tortuously through the mountains of central Luzon connects Bicol to Manila. During the typhoon season even this link becomes tenuous as sections of the road are washed out and collapse down the sides of steep mountains. Daily flights to and from Manila, buses, and one railway provide limited capacity for travel or interregional communications, and small ports in coastal villages provide limited access for inter-island trade. Regional transportation and communications are not much better, limiting travel and marketing, and leaving the Basin's settlement system a scattering of relatively isolated and poorly integrated clusters of villages.

Nor are current land-tenure arrangements conducive to increasing family incomes Farmholdings are small and fragmented. From a third to half of ail rice and corn farmers work as tenants or landless labourers, and farm productivity is nearly 10 per cent lower than that of the Philippines. Owners of large landed estates have reinvested little of their profits in the Basin over the years, and agricultural technology on both large and small farms is primitive, Manpower and draught animals provide the bulk of agricultural labour. Relatively few milling or processing facilities have been established, marketing networks in rural areas are poor, and storage capacity is limited. Because productivity and income are so low, both tenants and small landowners are continuously in debt. Whatever small surpluses they accumulate are quickly spent on baptisms, weddings, funerals, children's schooling, and the annual fiesta, and on repaying loans. Only about half of the Basin's 100,000 hectares of potentially irrigable ricelands are irrigated; nearly 50,000 hectares of prime agricultural land is flooded during the typhoon season and that located adjacent to the Bicol River suffers from saline intrusion.

FIG. 2. Existing Land-use Map of Camarines Sur and Albay Provinces

Because of its large size, rich potential, and severe poverty, both the national government and international assistance agencies have taken a strong interest in the Basin's development. The Bicol River Basin Development Program (BRBDP) was established by executive order in 1973 and strengthened by presidential decree in 1976. The programme seeks to promote development of agriculture, natural resources, infrastructure, social services, and private sector investment through integrated rural development; to provide comprehensive but decentralized planning and management of programmes and projects; and to combine national with local resources in attaining regional development goals.

The BRBDP and three other regional development programmes come under the jurisdiction of the National Council on Integrated Area Development (NCIAD), which was recently placed in the Office of the President. The Minister of Public Works serves as co-ordinator for BRBDP and regional directors of national ministries and agencies operating within the Basin; the governors of the participating provinces and the BRBDP programme director form the Bicol River Basin Coordinating Committee (BRBC). A council with representatives from private business, farmers, and religious groups, the media, and civic and youth organizations advises the programme. To facilitate local planning and programme implementation, the Basin is divided into Integrated Development Areas (IDAs), each with a development team headed by a municipal mayor, and consisting of local government officilis, community leaders, and technical personnel from national ministries and line agencies working in the Basin. These area development teams are assisted with planning and technical tasks by BRBDP and line agency professional staff (Fig. 3).

FIG. 3 Organizational Structure of Bicol River Basin Development Program

Development planning, technical studies and project design have been funded in part by grants and loans from the US Agency for International Development in amounts about equal to those provided by the Government of the Philippines. Thus far, three major capital construction projects in water resources development and secondary and feeder roads are underway and one is in the design stage. Comprehensive studies of water resources, land classification and mapping, intermodal transport, hydrometeorology, and others have been completed. Data collection and feasibility studies for agricultural education, health, nutrition, and population planning, crop production, and compact farm projects are in progress, as is a comprehensive socio-economic survey that will be updated every three years. An agribusiness reconnaissance survey, pre-feasibility studies, and rural industry analyses have recently been initiated.

Future Development Plans

Early success with regional planning and development in the Basin has attracted the attention of other assistance organizations. The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the governments of Germany and Japan have expressed interest in assisting with various projects identified in the Bicol Comprehensive Plan for 1978 - 1987. Over the next decade extensive physical infrastructure, agricultural production, agribusiness, small-scale manufacturing, and social services projects are planned for the Basin (Table 2), some of which were included in proposals presented to the World Bank Consultative Group meetings in Japan in 1978. A second farm-to-market road construction programme, estimated to cost more than US$40 million, has been identified. The World Bank and the Japanese government are now funding some road projects and the ADB is financing rehabilitation of the railroad from Manila to Bicol. In addition, the ADB has expressed willingness to consider proposals for loans to supplement government irrigation and agricultural activities in several IDAs. Germany and Japan have sent representatives to investigate possible investments, particularly in the industrial IDA. A World Bank loan is proposed for upgrading the quality and expanding the facilities of local agricultural colleges. Moreover, both the World Bank and ADB may assist with projects to upgrade smaller ports in the Basin, extend and improve domestic water supplies, and contribute to agribusiness, fisheries development, and rural industry studies. USAID is expected to continue providing financial support for planning and project preparation, capital projects in some IDAs, an integrated project for health, nutrition, and population, and for technical assistance to augment the BRBDP's growing staff of trained planners, technicians, and administrators.

TABLE 2. Bicol River Basin-IAD Agricultural Development Implementation Schedule


Project/Component 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987
Physical infrastructure
A. Transportation
1. Secondary roads
2. Feeder roads
3. Ports
C. Water resources  



Project/Component 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987
A. Agri-business industries
1. Food processing XXXXXXXXXXXXXX
2. Storage/warehousing XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
3. By-product utilization XXXXXXXX
B. Household industry XXXXXXXX
C. Complementary industry XXXXX
Social Development  
Support projects  
A. Feasibility studies XXXXXXXXXXXXX
B. Agricultural support  
1. Land and soil resources inventory XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
2. Land use hydrology XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
3. Land utilization type development XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Source: Republic of the Philippines, Bicol River Basin Development
Program, Ten-Year Development Plan CY 1978 - 1987.

The "Urban Functions in Rural Development" Project

Thus, the Basin was chosen as the site for the first in a series of pilot projects for integrated spatial analysis, not only because of its marginality and high levels of poverty, but also because a regional planning and development agency-the Bicol River Basin Development Program-was willing to undertake the study, and because of the relatively good data base found in the Philippines. Highly trained local manpower was available and capable of implementing the project successfully. The interest of USAID's Philippine Mission and the co-operation of the Philippine government in providing support were also strong considerations in selection.

The 16-month project was designed in co-operation with international consultants and implemented by the Center for Policy and Development Studies (CPDS) at the University of the Philippines at Los Baņos through a contract with BRBDP. CPDS maintained a field office in Bicol during the data-collection phases of the project and moved the staff to Manila and Los Baņos for the analysis and planning stages.

Indigenous design and implementation of the project, as opposed to implementation by foreign consultants, was important for two reasons. First, although the Bicol had a relatively good data base, much of the crucial information was not expected to be available in the forms needed, and the knowledge and experience of local planners would be essential for designing realistic surveys and interpreting results. Second, the planning process was to be institutionalized in the Bicol River Basin Development Program, requiring that its staff and consultants be intimately involved in the entire study. Project design assistance, technical aid in selecting and adapting methodology, review and evaluation of working papers and the final report, and assistance with training were provided by international consultants, who also monitored and evaluated the project. These consultants were available at regular intervals during the project, but did not reside fulltime in the Philippines. Final responsibility for all phases, and for completion of the project, was vested in the Philippine staff.

Contents - Previous - Next