As climate change intensifies, environmentalists say: Use renewable energy in disaster response
When Typhoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) barreled across Tacloban City in 2013, everything went underwater: homes, offices, roads. With the city’s power and water supply wiped out, retrieving the injured and the dead from the chaos became just as dangerous.
Help came slowly, too. But even when donations came pouring in, environmentalists noted that first responders relied heavily on generators that ran on gasoline—which, at the time, was also scarce in the battered western Visayan city.
“Access to reliable, sustainable clean energy during disaster situations is a major concern of everyone, but in terms of giving priority to it by humanitarian actors and agencies, and even local disaster risk practitioners, it’s given very low priority,” said Arturo Tahup, resilience director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC).
“Many of them rely on generators or hope that power will be restored by the grid companies. But in waiting, you compromise life-saving, resilience building, reconstruction building activities,” he added. “If energy has no proper place in disaster risk reduction and humanitarian response, it’s a huge problem.”
This premise laid the foundation for ICSC and 350.org’s “Solar Scholars” program, which trains disaster survivors, peasantfolk, women and youth on how to wield solar technology. Specifically, they’re taught how to assemble TekPaks, or solar-powered portable charging stations, given to communities highly exposed to climate-related disasters.
Such initiatives, Tahup said, keep vulnerable communities afloat during emergencies, and instill in them a shared sense of pride and responsibility over homegrown, communal technologies.
In involving disaster survivors, they also inculcate community solidarity “and build resilience, because it shows that disasters can be overcome by people who are organized on shared values and common interests,” said 350.org regional campaigner Chuck Baclagon.
So far, the Solar Scholars program has trained 326 people across nine provinces, who then go around and provide disaster-sticken communities with TekPaks.
The TekPaks are essentially briefcases containing locally sourced inverters, lithium iron or lead acid batteries, and charge controllers. It can power mobile phones and batteries, and medical equipment during emergencies.
So far, the communities that have received the TekPaks used them to power emergency equipment during typhoons. In Tanay, which was ravaged by Typhoon “Ulysses,” three TekPaks were given to the community health center, the barangay hall and one of their tribal leaders.
Tahup emphasized that the TekPak spare parts must be locally available and easily accessible for them to be usable for communities. But once ICSC and 350.org provide the “hardware,” it is up to the communities to build the “orgware.”
“It’s not enough to simply donate TekPaks and train people how to use them,” he stressed. “The communities need to organize themselves and take responsibility for it, so they can raise funds to maintain and upkeep the technology.”
This premise, he stressed, is based on a concept in climate justice called energy democracy, which represents a shift from corporate, centralized fossil fuel economies to clean energy that is governed and managed by communities.
Many environmentalists have long argued that decentralized energy sources, like the solar power grids in the Dumagat-Remontado community in Tanay (see Part 1), is not only more efficient but also more responsive to people’s needs.
By promoting renewable energy, TekPaks also represent the broader resistance against the climate crisis, Baclagon said.
Beyond simply lowering carbon emissions, technologies powered by renewable energy “also builds the capacity of the communities impacted (by climate-related disasters) and who are vulnerable, by helping them design solutions using resources that are readily available within the community,” he added.
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