Text and photos by AC Dimatatac
As a photojournalist who has experience in documenting humanitarian response, I have witnessed how responders usually focus on water, livelihood, health and living conditions, but overlook energy, no matter how vital it is.
I was excited to join the Typhoon Mangkhut (Ompong) rapid assessment team of ACT Alliance last month because it would be my first time to join a rapid response in which an energy assessment was included. ICSC brought its TekPaks to support the operations of the rapid assessment team and the Mangkhut survivor communities it partnered with.
TekPaks are portable solar-powered devices designed and created for and with survivors of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). They are able to provide power not only for LED lights but also for small electrical devices such as mobile phones, laptop computers, electric fans and some medical equipment.
Leading the ICSC contingent was Glinly Alvero, ICSC technical officer and RE-Serve Humanitarian Corps volunteer, and who himself survived Haiyan and assisted in response efforts. Francis dela Cruz, ICSC partnerships and advocacy advisor, rounded up the ICSC team. I was tasked to be the communications officer for the entire rapid assessment team, which was led by Joanna Villaflor of Christian Aid.
We visited nine communities in Cagayan and Kalinga in six days, and we found that one of the then most pressing issues was the lack of electricity. Major cities such as Tuguegarao, Cagayan and Tabuk, Kalinga were temporarily powered by diesel generator sets, but most of the barangays in the peripheries only relied on candles and gas lamps.
The team left TekPak units in two areas, one in Barangay Afusing Batu, Alcala, Cagayan and another with the local parish in Pasil, Kalinga. These communities were both hard to reach and regarded vulnerable in times of typhoons and other disasters.
As of last weekend, power has yet to be restored in Afusing Batu as well as in Baggao town, also in Cagayan, but the local electric cooperative reports they aim to complete the restoration of electricity by the end of November.
“As a survivor of Super Typhoon Yolanda, I was prepared to help survivors of Ompong in terms of my technical expertise in handling the TekPak. I thought at first that they would be more prepared than us because they experienced Typhoon Lawin just two years ago. But some areas lacked the basic preparations and knowledge regarding disaster response. I am quite saddened because this means that the whole country is still ill prepared,” Glinly told us, adding that we cannot blame the communities for having limited options.
“The stories shared to us only make the case for renewable energy stronger. For example, the woman from Alcala, Cagayan who had to use a nebulizer every 6 hours. Or how could another survivor from Baggao claim support if her house was burnt down by a candle?” Francis said.
“Even our contact in Kalinga – Fr. Jeorge Manisem – had difficulties reaching us because his cellphone had low battery. People like Fr. Jeorge who are in the frontlines of humanitarian response, if they had no power and technical capacity, would be going in blind. What could’ve solved that is a system small enough for mobile charging,” he added.
In some areas in Kalinga, charging stations powered by diesel generators charged for about PHP 10 to 30 per mobile phone charging. We discovered that most families were unaware of solar-powered devices, and would have invested in them if they knew.
Climate change projections in the Philippines - and worldwide - indicate that typhoons might not necessarily become more frequent in the future, but they would likely become more intense. More importantly, the country is at risk not just of typhoons and other extreme weather events but also of sea level rise, ocean acidification, and other creeping impacts of climate change.
More and more Filipinos would be living on the frontlines of the climate crisis in the coming years, even as traditional sources of energy such as coal and diesel become riskier - more expensive and harder to import.
Harnessing solar and other renewable energy then is not just a means of climate change mitigation. It must be considered an integral part of humanitarian response and of low carbon development.