by Uro Tahup
Solar power technology in the form of portable solar-powered lamps has slowly made inroads into many communities hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda in remote islands and barangays located in Eastern and Western Samar.
It all began when UN agencies, international and local humanitarian NGOs, and even private foundations distributed thousands of solar-powered lamps – from the cheap made in China to the sturdy made in Germany – to typhoon survivors after strong winds and surges toppled power lines and crippled diesel generators in these areas resulting into long periods of power outages.
What started as an emergency response to provide lighting to Yolanda survivors from the sun, the biggest natural fusion reactor in our solar system, has transformed the lives of Yolanda survivors who were once dependent on kerosene-powered gasera and Petromax to brighten their homes at night and light the paths of fisherfolks as they ride their pump boats across Leyte Gulf or upland dwellers as they trek mountain trails under darkness.
I’ve witnessed the impact of the first wave of solar invasion when I lived and worked with Yolanda survivors for almost a year as a humanitarian aid worker in another NGO and recently with my involvement with ICSC’s installation of household and community solar power systems project in the Visayas.
Goodbye Gasera, Hello Solar Lamp
Before the solar-powered lamps invasion, a household spent an average of P20 to P30 for two days supply of kerosene for the gasera, while a fisherman spent P40 to P50 to fuel his Petromax every night or dawn in Suluan Island, Guiuan – abode of the giant Maka-andog in Waray folklore. The same situation prevailed in Manicani Island – site of Hinatuan Mining Corporation’s suspended nickel ore open pit mine.
Saving money by using solar-powered lamps is indeed the best incentive for the rural poor to go renewable.
Today, most fisherfolk households living in Suluan Island rely on portable solar-powered lamps donated to them by Ayala Foundation for home lighting and night fishing. Even as Manicani Island is now at last connected to the electric grid via long submarine cable from Guiuan, fisherfolk families still use the durable NIWA portable solar lamps given to them by Terre des Hommes Germany and the Medical Action Group not only for lighting and fishing but also for charging their mobile phones, especially during Saturdays when power outage regularly hits the town of Guiuan, including Manicani Island.
At the height of Typhoon Ruby last December, these NIWA portable solar lamps illuminated the foxhole shelters set up by Manicani residents on higher grounds after they fled their homes situated near the coasts to survive the typhoon.
In Kilometer 16, Barangay Tinabanan, Marabut located in Western Samar, about 17 Mamanwa households continue to wish that the solar-powered lamps given to them by a UN agency last year are still working today. Mamanwas longed for the six months last year when they saved precious cash from buying kerosene for their gasera and batteries for their flashlights, because they had their solar-powered lamps instead. The Mamanwas are an indigenous tribe originally from Mindanao who migrated to the mountains of Samar many years ago but were displaced by Super Typhoon Yolanda.
Living in the more interior part of the uplands in Kilometer 22, no less than 30 Marabutnon upland settler families suffered the same plight of their Mamanwa neighbors when the same UN-donated solar-powered lamps conked out after six months use. But these mountain dwellers saw the benefits of buying new, cheap solar-powered lamps from a sari-sari store located along the highway in Barangay Tinabanan proper. At a cost of P300 to P320 per lamp, they can enjoy a bright night without the gasera and flashlight.
But they complain that these cheap, inferior solar lamps break down after a few months. Again, they make another purchase from the smiling sari-sari store owner who has made a killing from selling inferior quality solar lamps to Marabutnon upland settlers.
Second Wave of Solar Invasion
Warays and Mamanwas, especially Yolanda survivors, have awakened from their long trance from inhaling fumes rising out of their kerosene-powered gaseras. They have seen the power of the sun in transforming their lives. Their experience with solar-powered lamps, even the cheap and inferior types, is the best teacher.
But for the solar power invasion of Samar and other places without regular and reliable electric power to become successful and sustainable, what is needed is a second wave of solar power invasion – not a blitzkrieg but a long, painstaking campaign.
Ordinary folks should learn to correctly compute and assess their power needs, choosing low wattage but effective lighting and appliances over energy-wasteful devices. Why go for a high watt CFL when a low watt LED can illuminate the same brightness?
Solar power suppliers and dealers should promote and sell affordable and quality solar-powered products with locally available replacement parts. The practice of selling inferior quality solar-powered products which will end up in the junkyard is no different from selling trash to poor consumers.
Without a pool of trained and empowered community-based solar technicians, both men and women, solar power will never be sustainable.
A barangay official in Caga-ut, Salcedo explained that one of the reasons why most AusAid-funded solar-powered water systems in Eastern Samar became useless to the community today is that only a single technician was supposedly trained and responsible for repairing and maintaining these systems in the whole province. How can one expect the technician to accomplish all the work when most of these solar-powered water systems need constant repair after 3 to 4 years usage?
There is more to solar power than solar-powered lamps. It is high time to adopt complete solar power household and community systems which are best suited to the power needs and financial capacities of the rural poor to acquire and maintain these game-changing systems.
The design and technologies are at hand to scale up solar power for the benefit of the most vulnerable and most in need families and communities who are willing to invest in green technology. The burning question is will government, the private sector, the banks, NGOs and other stakeholders provide institutional, technical and financial incentives to boost the second wave of solar power invasion of Samar?
Unless they answer this question in the affirmative and turn their words into actions, they are bound to repeat the same mistakes of too many failed foreign-funded solar power initiatives in Samar in the past. Waray Upay!