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Solar power lights up historic Suluan Island

SULUAN ISLAND, EASTERN SAMAR, Philippines — This easternmost island of the Philippines may have been the first victim of a climate-induced disaster, but it recently made a strong statement to protect Mother Earth by adapting a low-carbon lifestyle.

Since super typhoon Yolanda first made landfall in this island over three years ago, residents have been slowly moving away from diesel generators to using solar-powered home systems to light up their homes and run a few appliances.

The Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC), in partnership with the UK-based charity Christian Aid and the local women’s organization Sulong Suluan, distributed 47 units of Niwa solar home systems, each of which came with three 300-lumen LED lamps, a nine-inch table fan, a solar panel, and a battery.

“Solar energy is a better alternative because it does not cause pollution and you do not pay extra to use it,” said Anecito Loyola, a barangay councilman and one of ICSC’s two “solar scholars” in the island. Solar scholars are Yolanda survivors trained by ICSC to become their barangays’ solar-energy pack technicians and disaster responders.

“We need this so that my children can study better at night,” adds Antonio Garado Jr., a fisherman and father of five. Until last week, his family had to make do with a lone solar bulb that was given by a charity two years ago.

Garado said his average daily income of P200 cannot afford him to connect to the diesel generator set of his neighbor, who charges P5 per bulb for a three-hour service. “With this solar home system I can decide how long we will use the lights,” he added.

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For 82-year-old grandmother Nieves Caspe, having a solar home system provides a better sense of security since she lives alone in her house. “I was reluctant to get [the solar house system] at first because I don’t know how to use it, but my daughter has been helping me with it,” she said. “It feels safer when the house is brighter.”

Arturo Tahup, project coordinator of ICSC’s RE-Charge Pilipinas, said Suluan Island was chosen for this project not only because it is an off-grid community but also due to its high “solar literacy.” It is common to see houses with solar panels and satellite dishes on the roof, and working TVs and portable DVD players inside.

“You will notice how badly the people here need electricity. They buy spare parts in Tacloban City (Leyte) and assemble their own solar home system that fits their domestic needs,” he said.

Tahup noted the active involvement of the barangay council, solar scholars and the grassroots organization Sulong Suluan also helped them decide to bring the project to the island.

During the initial consultations, residents agreed to pay P13 a day or P91 a week over the next two years to pay for the kit’s total cost of P9,490 to be collected by Sulong Suluan. The fee is lower than the P15 charged by generator owners for three lights over three hours of charging.

Tahup said the money will go to a solidarity fund to cover operational costs—including an honorarium for the collectors and transportation fare in depositing the money in Guiuan town (Eastern Samar)—training of more solar scholars, and the setting up of a community project called the Solar Sari-Sari Store, which will be managed by Sulong Suluan.

“If you really want to send a message that communities are taking the journey towards low-carbon resilience, it is good to make a statement in Suluan,” he said. “Suluan is not yet connected to the grid and the opportunity to start low-carbon resilience is high.”

Tahup said they first came to Suluan in 2015 to install solar streetlights as a replacement to the generator-run lights that were toppled down during Yolanda in 2013.

Suluan played an important role in shaping Philippine history. It is said to be the first site of anchorage of the Spanish armada led by Ferdinand Magellan on March 17, 1521, after 98 days of crossing the Pacific Ocean. Magellan then proceeded to Suluan’s neighboring island of Homonhon, and later to Limasawa where the first Catholic mass in the country was said to have been held on March 31 of the same year.

Suluan also played an important role in the successful campaign of US forced led by General Douglas McArthur during the Second World War.

Before MacArthur landed on the shores of Leyte on October 20, 1944 and launched the biggest naval battle in history,  a team of American soldiers was sent to Suluan to neutralize a group of Japanese soldiers. This successful campaign in Suluan secured and prepared the arrival of the general’s liberation forces. Elmer V. Recuerdo (FREEMAN)

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