How women are lighting up the lives of islanders in the Philippines

Back in 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, struck the Philippines. It is one of the strongest cyclones ever recorded, impacting the lives of 14 million people and causing extensive damage to over one million homes, infrastructure and people’s livelihoods.

Christian Aid’s local partner the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC) saw the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, as an opportunity to encourage people living in some of the most exposed areas to extreme weather to switch away from dependence on fossil fuel use in favour of an alternative, reliable, cheap and clean source of energy like solar that can be used in all walks of life from powering business to lighting homes.

One such place where ICSC worked to make the switch was on the small remote island of Sulu-an in the eastern Visayas region of the Philippines. Sulu-an is only home to 15,000 people and was the first victim of typhoon Haiyan. Working through Sulong Sulu-an women's group, a local women’s association on the island, ICSC provided women with small portable solar generators and trained them on how to use and repair them. Using these solar generators, the women’s group has been able to set up a solar shop where their members can work and earn a small income from selling goods.

“Solar energy is reliable and people must know that renewable energy is a way of reducing our contribution to climate change”, says Alma, President of the women’s association and manager of the solar shop. “We are feeling the effects of climate change on the island so we hope by using solar power, even in a small way, that we can help tackle it”, she adds.

Sulong Sulu-an women's group

The Sulong Sulu-an women's group, including fisherwoman Virginia (front left), and women's group president Alma (front right) in the solar shop.

To support their business to expand and grow, ICSC also provided the women’s association with a solar-powered freezer, enabling them to stock and sell a wider range of goods in their shop, including ice which can be used by local fishing folk to help preserve their catch and keep more money in their pockets by not having to import ice from elsewhere. ICSC has also taught the women skills such as bookkeeping so they can manage the shop’s purchase and sale of solar equipment to other islanders.

Located along the typhoon belt in the Pacific, the Philippines is hit by an average of 20 typhoons a year. For many across Sulu-an island, the devastation caused by typhoons each year has forced them to move away from their traditional livelihoods in search of another means to make a living.

“We experience strong typhoons that destroy our crops and farmland. The main problem on the island is the availability of food to eat, but we adapt and learn how to cope”, explains local fisherwoman and women’s association member Virginia.

59-year-old fisherwoman and member of the women's group Virginia catching fish with her spear

59-year-old fisherwoman and member of the women's group Virginia catching fish with her spear.

Like many islanders, Virginia is a former coconut farmer who had to find new ways of earning a living and supporting her family in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan which wiped out the island’s centuries-old coconut trees and subsequent industry. Since then, Virginia has switched to buying and selling octopus and fish which she catches using sustainable fishing methods such as spear and small net fishing. With the training she received from ICSC through the women’s association, Virginia now uses a solar-powered torch which enables her to fish at night.

But as she explains, solar energy is not only enabling islanders to thrive in their daily lives but is also playing a vital role in helping to both protect people in the run-up to and when a typhoon hits.

“I was not able to save much when the typhoon hit except my solar flashlight. It was the only source of light we had. Even though it got wet, it still worked” says Virginia.

“When a typhoon strikes, the first thing that goes down is the diesel generator, so with the solar generator, I knew we would be ok. During typhoon Mangkhut, we were able to use the solar generator to charge my phone and communicate with the local government based in a neighbouring island to tell them that the typhoon was coming”, she added.

The arrival of solar energy on Sulu-an has provided islanders with a reliable source of power and light. Working with the women’s association, ICSC has distributed 90 ‘solar homes systems’ to families on the island, which see solar panels installed on the roofs of homes to help power them in a way that is cheap, sustainable and clean. The panels are made from parts that are easy to replace locally, making the systems more sustainable. ICSC has provided homeowners with training on how the panels work, how they are to be maintained and where to source spare parts when needed.

“I use the solar home system and it works really well”, says Sulu-an’s only baker Josefina. “I did bake before I had solar light but was using kerosene but this was expensive and dangerous to use inside my home. Solar light is better because I can use it at any time, it’s safer and it’s cheaper.”

The reliable availability of power and light has not only helped islanders in their homes and working lives but has also helped to widen the availability of public services on the island. As health worker Amalyn explains, the arrival of solar energy on the island has helped to improve the quality of healthcare services available to islanders.

“We had no electricity in the health centre but now with the solar generator, we can power small solar lamps to provide light,” says Amalyn. “We use these lamps to help to deliver babies if the pregnant mother cannot make it to the mainland in time. For people with diabetes, we can store insulin in the freezer in the women’s solar shop.”

43-year-old health worker Amalyn is pictured in the island’s local health centre with the portable solar charger.

43-year-old health worker Amalyn is pictured in the island’s local health centre with the portable solar charger.

The flexibility provided by the portable generator has enabled it to come to the assistance of people beyond the health centre walls, with it having been transported and used to power a nebuliser to save someone in the throes of an asthma attack elsewhere on the island. 

To find out more about what else Christian Aid is doing to help communities to adapt to climate change, please click here.

6 March 2020