GENERAL SANTOS CITY -- The damage to agricultural crops in South Cotabato as a result of the prevailing dry spell has increased to around PHP80 million as the affected farm areas continued to expand as of Tuesday, the Office of the Provincial Agriculturist (OPAG) said.

Ma. Luisa Santillana, operations chief of OPAG-South Cotabato, said three of the province's 10 municipalities and lone city have already reported severe damages to crops due to the worsening dry weather triggered by the El Niño phenomenon.

She said the affected areas already reached some 2,273 hectares, covering 11 barangays in Surallah, 10 in Sto. Niño and nine in Banga town.

"We expect the damage figures and affected areas to increase in the coming days as the other municipalities have yet to submit their reports," she said in a press briefing on Tuesday.

Santillana said they are currently validating the reported crop damages in coordination with the municipal agriculture offices.

Data released by OPAG showed that around PHP66.97 million worth of corn crops were already destroyed in Surallah town, where a total of 1,167 hectares of farm lands are affected in Barangays Naci, Moloy, Veterans, Upper Sepaka, Tubi-allah, Lamsugod, Lambontong, Buenavista, Canahay, Centrala and Colongulo.

In Sto. Niño, at least 77 hectares of palay worth PHP2.3 million and 359 hectares of corn worth PHP10.97 million were reported damaged by the dry spell.

The affected barangays are Poblacion, Ambalgan, Panay, Teresita, Sajaneba, M. Roxas, San Isidro, Katipunan, Guinsang-an, and San Vicente.

Damages to various crops were recorded in 670 hectares of farm lands in Banga town but the total value has yet to be established.

Affected were palay, corn, cassava, banana, yam bean, papaya, peanut and sweet potato farms in Barangays Cabuling, Cinco, San Jose, Lamba, Lam-apos, Derilon, Lambining, Lampari and San Vicente.

"These are mostly upland rain-fed areas and far from the existing irrigation facilities," Santillana said.

Justina Navarrete, OPAG chief, reiterated that they are currently assisting local farmers in planting cash crops like mongo and watermelon as alternative to rice and corn.

She said a number of farmers in Banga and Tantangan towns have made initial harvests for watermelon after shifting to the crop following their last palay harvest in January.

"We're continually promoting the planting of vegetables in backyard gardens and we're providing free seeds for these," Navarrete added. (PNA)