Mutual Aid in Myanmar: Solar Power For Emergency Response

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In mutual aid systems, people work together to meet the needs of their community. This is different from a charity, which features a one-way relationship between an organization and recipients, often responding only to the effects of inequality but not the root causes. Mutual aid collaborations operate as an alliance between people united against a common struggle. 

We are excited to share that our most recent mutual aid project in Myanmar—a 5.5 kW solar system powering a COVID-19 Emergency Response Center—is complete and running strong.  This project was the result of a direct request from Karen Department of Health and Welfare (KDHW), a community-based healthcare provider run by and serving people of the Karen ethnic minority, many of whom are internally displaced refugees that have fled decades of conflict with Myanmar’s military. KDHW operates their clinics in an extremely remote, mountainous region, with many of their locations only accessible by boat, nowhere near the national power grid.

How can doctors plan for vaccine distribution when they do not have reliable electricity to power cold storage? Or coordinate and share information with neighboring clinics without power for computers and phones? In early 2021, KDHW recognized an urgent need for a local coordinated response to COVID-19. They mobilized to build a new center and called on Green Empowerment and our long-time regional partner the Border Green Energy Team (BGET) to energize it. 

Leading the solar installation, BGET traveled to Klo Yaw Lay village to deliver hardware, build the solar array, and train local staff in system maintenance. Now fully operational, the system powers the new center, including lights, fans, and laboratory equipment for a 40-bed hospital with PCR testing, a -20°C freezer to ensure cold-chain maintenance for vaccines, and communications equipment (computers, printers, and phones). Because this center was designed as a hub for coordinated care in the region, it not only serves people living in the nearby areas, but also nine other clinics in the close vicinity, providing improved medical services to nearly 30,000 people.

Thanks to support from the Good Works InstituteMeal-a-Day Asia Pacific, and SimpliPhi Power, who granted BGET their prestigious IDEA prize and donated 16 lithium batteries for the build, the 100% renewable energy system displaces less reliable and costly diesel generators that would normally be used. With so many international stake-holders involved, this project is a beautiful example of mutual aid, improving local health services while simultaneously combating climate change and addressing the global pandemic.

Challenge on the Ground: Progress Despite the Military Coup

Political corruption has led to extreme challenges in Myanmar’s sustainability progress. In February 2021, the Burmese Military took control of the country and removed the recently elected democratic government. For the past year, activists have organized mass strikes and protests against the coup, which violently reacted with live fire, water cannons and rubber bullets—essentially reigniting a civil war. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than 1,500 people have been killed since the military coup came to power.

Our NGO partner, KDHW was amongst the first organizations in Karen state to denounce the coup. Prior to democracy in 2011, the Burmese Army ruled for 49 yearsan era of military oppression with egregious human rights violations, including ongoing ethnic cleansing efforts that targeted Karen people. Airstrikes, which have recently resumed, drove thousands from their villages and created an internally displaced refugee crisis.

Due to safety concerns, many international aid organizations have had to stall projects and/or pull their staff out of Myanmar. However, our in-country partners, BGET and KDHW are well versed in operating under military rule and are able to access critical materials such as solar PV equipment, medical equipment, medicine, and vaccines via supply chains through Thailand. Even during extreme political upheaval, they were able to cautiously move forward and complete this project, highlighting the huge benefit of empowering locals to lead development projects.

Let’s Get Technical: Energy Usage & Remote Monitoring

As part of all their solar installs, BGET organized in-depth training for local staff for this project. Twenty medical practitioners and additional staff participated in a three day training on how to install, operate and maintain the solar systems. The training covered not only solar system components and maintenance, but also the basics of electricity and energy use management.

Local staff, BGET, and Green Empowerment can also assess the project using an installed remote monitoring system. Data is viewed through an online platform, giving all partners a daily update on the solar system’s energy performance. So far, the system is reporting a CO2 reduction of 1.96 tons, and also calculates the equivalent “number of planted trees,” which to date equals 134 trees and growing.

Mutual Aid: Building a Sustainable Future 

An essential ingredient of mutual aid is recognizing that all stake-holders are benefitting from the collaboration. Curbing the causes of climate change and increasing resiliency against COVID-19 are global efforts that directly affect all of our lives.

We are already planning our next project with BGET and KDHW. Together, we have prioritized eight additional clinics in need of reliable power and are currently planning and fundraising for the installations. To build a better world, people must work together to unite against a common struggle. As author and activist Terry Tempest states, “Despair shows us the limit of our imagination. Imagination shared creates collaboration, and collaboration creates community, and community inspires social change.” Sustainability can only be achieved if we work together.

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