The woman lighting up Haiyan island

We explore how fisherwoman Virginia is adapting to climate change on the island of Sulan, in the Philippines.

5 March 2020

The tiny, remote island of Suluan, in the Philippines, was first to be hit by deadly super typhoon Haiyan. Now, a movement of women – survivors and island protectors – fight against climate change, leading the drive towards renewable energy.

Suluan was once dependent upon centuries-old coconut trees to farm, but Haiyan wiped out the vegetation. Island life is now deeply linked to the sea.

Virginia was a coconut farmer, until Haiyan forced her closer to the sea to survive. Her island’s name means ‘light’; fittingly, a solar torch was one of the few possessions she was able to save in the disaster. She alternates between three sustainable fishing methods, to catch fish to sell and feed her family.

Virginia fishing at night with a solar light

Virginia fishing at night with a solar light

Photo: Christian Aid/Amy Sheppey

Because of the women’s association, this island is known. Our stories are being used to influence others.


Virginia’s photos were among the few personal possessions she managed to save as Haiyan battered her island and destroyed her home. ‘I could see the foundations of the house wobbling like paper, large tree trunks twisted, everything turned brown, all the houses were ruined. I kept praying’.
She now lives next to the skeleton remains of her former house.

A photo of Virginia in a photo album that she rescued from Typhoon Haiyan.

A photo of Virginia (seen here in pink) in a photo album that she rescued from Typhoon Haiyan.

Photo: Christian Aid/Amy Sheppey

Spear fishing is one of the sustainable fishing methods Virginia uses to catch fish during the day. It can take her a long time out at sea to catch just a few fish for her family.

Virginia spear fishing in Suluan

Virginia spear fishing in Suluan

Photo: Christian Aid/Amy Sheppey

Virginia net fishes at night with her grandson Henry, using solar lighting. They catch fish and octopus, to sell and to feed the family, often using solar to support them.

Virginia goes fishing with her grandson in a solar-lit boat

Virginia goes net fishing after dark with her grandson Henry.

Photo: Christian Aid/Amy Sheppey

‘A five-kilo fish is the biggest I’ve caught and the whole family ate it’, Henry remembers. ‘I use the solar lamp when we need to go to bed to get ready. When I finish school, I want to be a seafarer and to continue fishing. My father taught me to fish. My grandma is good at catching fish too’.

A young boy called Henry in a fishing boat with a catch, Philippines

Virginia's grandson Henry, seen here in a fishing boat.

Photo: Christian Aid/Amy Sheppey

Virginia knife fishes at dusk with her grandchildren and daughter-in-law, catching shellfish in a bucket.

‘Fisherfolk have become more observant of the weather and we have a hard time getting a catch. But we still fish and carry on with daily life because we don’t have a choice. If we stop doing it, how can our children survive?’

Virginia and her family knife fishing for shellfish, Suluan, Philippines

Virginia and her family knife fishing for shellfish, collecting them in a bucket.

Photo: Christian Aid/Amy Sheppey

Vulnerable - but at the forefront of change

A collection of over 7,000 islands, the Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries to the climate crisis, with little standing between islanders and the sea.

Lacking access to mainland electricity, Suluan was once dependent on dirty fossil fuels. Haiyan was a catalyst for the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC) to integrate renewable energy into disaster response, and rebuild safer, more sustainable communities.

Sulong Suluan women's group

The 'Sulong Sulu-an' women's group, including fisherwoman Virginia (left), and women's group president Alma (second to right).

Photo: Christian Aid/Amy Sheppey

A brighter future

Through solar training, these women prepare and respond to disasters. Despite bearing the brunt of climate change, they're taking the lead in protecting their island and their livelihoods.