Simon and Garfunkel, for whatever their hippie reasons, welcomed darkness, their old friend. For the survivors of super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) that struck Polopiña Island in Concepcion, Iloilo in November 2013, the heart of darkness was at once something they knew and lived with, and also something alien and oppressive.
When the sea rose and darkness came at noon, only the walls of two concrete structures remained standing, the chapel and the house of Nonong Asuelo, a former police officer and community leader. All the houses in that village of 3,884 people were flattened.
Garniso’s husband, Jovin, a carpenter and fisher, salvaged debris to shelter their young kids, only four then, and claim space from the destruction to re-form walls, roof and selves. Like many others huddling in similar shelters, a makeshift kingki (gas lamp) bravely kept the dark out “pero sayaw ng sayaw sa hangin, ilang beses din namin sinisindihan ulit” (but it kept dancing in the wind and we kept relighting it).
Not that they were strangers to darkness. They were fishers, after all, used to navigating by starlight and moonlight in the dead of night, and are back home but asleep at first light.
Elizabeth Villasis, 67, could recite the names of all her “ikalawang apo” (great grandchildren from her nine children) but couldn’t even remember the last time they had electricity from the grid earlier supplied by the Iloilo Electric Cooperative (ILECO) nor why its operation ceased. ILECO’s electric posts and wires survived typhoons, even Yolanda, but they have not transmitted power since 2010.
Unlike cities with their midnight suns, day and night are simpler in Polopiña. When twilight fades, this barangay of 869 households light their kingki or connect to the less than ten houses powered by diesel- generators.
“Pag madilim, maraming kabit!” (When night comes, there are many mistresses.) Garniso chuckles at her own joke, “eto, kabit nito. Yun kabit nun,” (This is connected to that. And that one is connected to this) pointing to the tangled network of wires from one house with a generator to as many as 20 of its neighbors. The Filipino word for electrical connection, often illegal, is “kabit,” which roughly translates to the English term for extra-marital affairs.
“Hindi kami kabit!” (We’re not mistresses!) squeals Elma Baluya, 67, pointing to Alberto Aspero, 61, emphasizing that they were both single and their respective houses were not connected to their neighbor’s generator. They finish cooking, bathing and cleaning by the dying light, and use a kingki only to eat dinner.
“Sanay na ako sa dilim” (I am used to the dark), says Aspero, a fisher and the chairperson of Sitio Looc Small Fisherfolk Association (SELOSFA). Rather than light his kingki on evenings, he goes to the house of Nonong Asuelo to watch TV, and save P10 for the night’s kerosene.
“Ako, hindi masanay-sanay sa dilim,” sighs Baluya, whose teenaged nieces schedule shifts for someone to stay with her at night and, if she could afford it, keep the kingki alight despite its flickering and despite the cost, to light the night and dawn rituals of an old lady. When their coastal huts were swallowed by typhoon Yolanda’s 8-foot waves, even Aspero craved for light.
Elna and Jovin, Elma and Alberto were among the 40 indigent families from sitios Punta Ingkoy, Looc and Batos in Polopiña who received shelter assistance from NGOs, Christian Aid and Iloilo Code NGOs (I-Code). Under the Core Shelter Program, the families contributed labor to set up their homes, set up neighborhood associations, and worked to normalize their lives.
“It is always in hindsight,” says Red Constantino, Executive Director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (iCSC). ”After heroic humanitarian efforts and the struggle to rehabilitate devastated communities, people realise too late and ask the familiar question: ‘Oh. What about energy?’”
The mindset is prevalent in most Yolanda-affected communities trying to rebuild in the Visayas. The same is mostly true elsewhere, in villages affected by extreme weather conditions and disasters. Constantino says, “entire communities will likely return to inefficient, polluting, wasteful practices that were likely contributory to their vulnerabilities to begin with.”
Constantino says building back better can be “build(ing) back brighter as well.” I-Code and Christian Aid recognized this early after community consultations among Core Shelter Program families reiterated their energy needs. The NGOs partnered with iCSC to provide low carbon resilience training and tools to community leaders and together they provided Solar Home Systems to an initial 40 households, effectively maximizing the niche expertise of three organizations. The number of solarised households is now over 100 and still climbing.
Since 2008, I-Code has been organizing communities in Polopiña for its population-health-environment (PHE) projects. “We have trained community leaders over time,” says Boyet Areno, I-Code Executive Director. “This is why it was easier for the housing beneficiaries to organize and maintain their neighborhood associations.” I-Code’s area knowledge and resource-mapping helped provide iCSC with baseline information to ascertain the renewable energy technology best suited to the area, which they verified through their own inspection and consultations.
Since the villagers were already paying P10 a night to link up to the generators or buy kerosene for kingki, dela Cruz acknowledged that “rebuilding better” meant NGOs and donor groups had to review their old way of doing things. Dela Cruz said from experience the poor will pay for services so long as these are reliable. Poor households will also save money for things they consider important, especially energy. Unfortunately, energy is not part of the usual NGO to-do’s. “We are helping to change this,” said dela Cruz.
The traditional “templated assistance,” as Constantino calls it, had to be re-assessed, rebooted, re-conceptualized. Weaning people away from practices that contribute to climate change meant that they had to be fully engaged and provided with other options.
With villagers themselves saying they could afford to pay for the SHS and, more importantly, maintain it, agreement was quickly reached based on a P10 daily payment over two years. This would be collected by community leaders trained by I-Code, who were designated as “box keepers.” The families soon developed their own workable schemes: some found it easier to pay P10, P20 daily. “Depende, minsan may huli, minsan wala. Budget-budget lang. Kung walang huli, kinukuha ko muna yung na-save ko pambili ng bigas, (It depends. Sometimes, we have a good catch, in other times, we don’t have enough. We just need to budget well. If there’s no catch, I get from the money I saved to buy rice.]said Nancy Castillon. Others paid every 15th of the month.
Extending the daytime, is how her husband, Jovin, looks at night lighting, as he can now create more furniture and continue their business of making ice cream.
Elma Baluya pauses for a long moment before revealing, “Sa ibang sitio may rape. Pag may ilaw, matatakot sila” (There were rape case in other villages. Now the criminals will not be as bold). Another senior, Alberto Aspero, who earlier said he was used to darkness, now also admits to early fears and groping to light a stubborn kingki especially on windy nights, “stable na ako sa gabi.” (I now feel stable at night).
Visible across Polopiña in mainland Concepcion is a structure that belittles Iloilo’s bid to build better. The coal-fired power plant that many villagers opposed since year 2000 may start operating next year. While being connected to the grid is a remote possibility, because lighting the island is not considered a profitable return-of-investment for government, the polluting effects of the plant will contribute to potentially more extreme typhoons, many likley even stronger than Yolanda.
This painful irony is not lost on Elizabeth Villasis, who knows how it is to live on an island in the path of storms. Asked if she would opt to connect to the grid, she laughs hard and says she was one of the many from Polopiña who opposed the plant. Most of the villagers depended on the sea to live and owned only the barest of appliances. Their energy needs remain simple, too small to require the “apat na libong connection fee” (four thousand pesos connection fee), Villasis says.
Villasis looks at her grandchildren knowing that though they are lighted by the sun now, they have learned the lessons of the dark. “Solar ang pipiliin ko. Ayokong magkaroon ng utang sa ILECO forever. Ito, amin na pagkatapos ng dalawang taon. Tsaka sana maintindihan nila na lalala pa (ang mga bagyo),” [I choose solar. I don’t want to be forever indebted to ILECO. This will be ours after two years. And I hope they understand that extreme weather events will just worsen.), she shakes her head, “lalala at lalala pa” (It will get worse and worse).