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A bottom-up approach to Philippine sustainability

New energy initiatives give cause for hope

A bottom-up approach to Philippine sustainability

An eJeepney in Manila (photo by Rebekah Shirley).

Rebekah Shirley, Manila

June 4, 2014

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It is a bright, sunny morning in steamy Metro Manila as men in wilting business suits and women waving hand fans scuttle to find shade under a blue construction tarpaulin billowing near the construction site of yet another high-rise office building.

Skipping over puddles of cement mix, I follow the pedestrians down P Tuazon Avenue, sharing the roadway with brawny buses, swerving motorcycles, honking taxis and the iconic kaleidoscopic jeepneys.

I am in the Philippines to visit the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (iCSC), a local Filipino NGO focused on community empowerment and clean energy solutions.

The group birthed the famous eJeepney, an electric battery-powered version of the local minibus – a successful first fruit of clean, electric public transportation for the developing world.  

With a surging population of almost 12 million, Metropolitan Manila is one of the emerging cities of Southeast Asia and cleaner, cheaper ways of transporting throngs of people are now imperative. 

As the city blossoms, it also becomes more vulnerable to the impact of natural disasters, something with which the island archipelago is already familiar.

Memories of Typhoon Haiyan hang in the air of our discussion at the iCSC head office, a groovy alcove of repurposed furniture and hand-painted windows overlooking an old trade fair. 

“Filipinos have been adapting since before it was en vogue,” Red chuckles. Renato ‘Red’ Constantino is the executive director and all-around visionary of iCSC. 

“Mitigation, adaptation – can we truly separate these ideas?” he asks, with palms outstretched, as though holding the words in his hands. A tattooed serpent slithers up his left arm and his wrists are banded with bracelets and amulets. 

With spikey black and gray peppered hair and red worn boots, he is the stuff of adventure tales. “It is not about warding off danger or merely coping with the times. It is about building better, healthier, stronger, resilient cities, no matter what the future holds.” 

His philosophy is compelling and, indeed, iCSC has had recent success lobbying the government for a legislative fund to support community capacity building, aptly named the People’s Survival Fund.

Red’s team is a select handful of policy experts and technology managers, all home grown and passionate about environmental activism in the Philippines. 

Reina Garcia has worked for the eJeepney program since its inception in 2005. She takes me out to see the fleet in action.

iCSC has found local battery manufacturers and local electric vehicle manufacturers able to assemble the eJeepneys at low cost. 

Made of lightweight steel and without the need for a rumbling diesel engine, the eJeepney offers a quieter, cooler ride to passengers, while reaping the savings from no fuel cost. 

An iCSC subsidiary now operates 20 eJeepneys, routed throughout the metropolitan region. iCSC hopes that the model will be adopted by other jeepney operators in the near future. 

“They’ve integrated quite seamlessly,” Reina tells me. “Anyone would jump into an eJeepney, most without even knowing they are in an electric vehicle.”

We hop into one for a ride to the charging station and chat with some of the drivers, all of them women. 

In fact, half the fleet is operated by female drivers, an iCSC strategy to promote employment equality. It is refreshing to see a simple, functional operation working so steadily for years in the tropics. It parallels the team’s action-oriented tone of simplicity and efficiency: Bottom-up technologies that work – no catch, no twist, no hidden charges.

These are exactly the types of solutions that the Philippines needs right now, especially in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda and with the promise of stronger, larger storms to come. Yolanda struck the Philippines last November and went down in history as the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall. 

I got the chance to visit Leyte, the island most devastated by Yolanda, and Tacloban, its capital, which was completely leveled. It was a tremendously moving experience. 

From the moment of getting off the plane at the ghostly remains of the airport, it felt like being on the set of an eerie, end-of-time, post-apocalyptic movie. 

Rows and streets of houses, churches, malls, completely reduced to rubble. Ships stranded hundreds of meters inland. Blue and white relief aid tents stretching for kilometers on end.

But Tacloban is more than that now. 

iCSC is now expanding the eJeepney operation here, to be part of the response and rebuilding efforts since transportation is still a scarcity.

Every so often a jeepney passes by with people piled onto the roof, risking life and limb for a precious ride into or out of the city. 

Teddy Arellano is the project manager for setting up the eJeepney operations in the city, and he lets me tag along as he travels through Tacloban surveying the new operation sites, signing leases and meeting contractors.

The eJeepney holding bay and charging station will be solar powered, Teddy tells me, and they want to try a new idea: mobile charging stations – driving the eJeepneys to communities still left without electricity and charging phones, radios, anything, through the vehicle’s batteries.  

“It will be our little experiment,” laughs the affable Teddy with a playful smile. Someone has to be willing to take the risk to see what works, what sticks. As we travel through the torn city, I marvel at his calm and ease. Teddy greets everyone we meet with a comforting familiarity, jokes ready at hand.

He chats to families with deep condolence but also with a pleasant demeanor that makes the interactions less solemn. He points out to me all the progress, the new stores, neighbors helping neighbors to rebuild what was lost. 

Positive, purposed and practical, the iCSC team speaks volumes to me about the true meaning of bottom-up engagement. They are not in the business here of bemoaning tragedy or laying blame for a slow emergency response. 

Rather, the team is taking up the challenge and opportunity to study a new technology’s usefulness and economy in the space of most urgent need.

Unlike the stormy waters, sorrow and pain have not yet subsided in the Philippines, but human nature is resilient. 

If I’ve learned anything from my time with iCSC, it is that hope can bring the change that people need. Hope can make ideas reality. Hope can stand as the foundation for resilient cities of the future. 

Rebekah Shirley is currently a PhD student with the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley.

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