Australia — THIS summer, Eastern Australia has been gripped by a rolling series of severe heatwaves, with Melbourne, Adelaide and much of NSW experiencing sweltering heat this weekend.
The Victorian Government has come under pressure over problems with the state’s response to the most recent deadly heatwave, which caused electricity networks in Victoria and South Australia to shudder and forced Australian Open tennis officials to apply an extreme heat policy for the first time.
But the reality is all states and territories should be doing much more to reduce the toll of extreme weather events, especially when we know there will be even more extreme heatwaves in the future.
It’s not commonly known that heatwaves kill more Australians than any other natural disaster. In the summer of 2009 around 370 Victorians died as a result of the heatwave that preceded the Black Saturday bushfires.
State and territory governments need to treat heat waves as emergencies in the same way they treat bushfires and floods.
This was a greater toll than our worst bushfires and placed Victoria’s health and emergency services under intense strain. The past month’s heatwaves could turn out to be deadlier.
The CSIRO has found that poorer urban neighbourhoods are generally located where land surface temperature and heat exposure are greatest. People with low incomes are also more likely to live in un-insulated homes.
We know that many people are avoiding using air-conditioning in an attempt to manage their increasing electricity bills.
This situation is complicated by the inadequacy and inconsistency of energy concessions, which vary from state to state.
We also know that people on the lowest incomes are twice as likely to have their health affected by heat than those on higher incomes. This is more so for low income elderly people and people living with ongoing health problems.
People on low incomes are more likely to be renting and the cheaper end of the rental market is often poorly maintained and thermally inefficient.
This means poorer households are not only already more susceptible to heat, but are exposed to higher temperatures for long periods because of where they live and the quality of housing.
State and territory governments need to treat heat waves as emergencies in the same way they treat bushfires and floods. We need clear strata-gies for emergency response, and we need to plan and adapt to coping better in the future.
ACOSS has been calling for a comprehensive plan, including energy efficiency standards for rental properties, incentives to encourage landlords to improve building standards, and for front line community groups to be play a central role in emergency planning.
Better standards would improve the safety of rental housing.
Assistance to landlords to improve building standards could also make a difference to avoid inflating rental costs. There is currently no incentive for landlords to install insulation or shading on their investment properties.
Commonwealth Government assistance to improve energy efficiency among low income households via the Home Energy Savers Scheme is due to wind up in June 2014.
The reality is all states and territories should be doing much more to reduce the toll of extreme weather events.
In NSW, for example, the Home Power Savings Program recently reached its target and future plans for low income households are unclear.
Yet home energy efficiency programs have shown that behaviour change and minor retrofits can be successfully delivered to reduce energy consumption and improve the lives people on low incomes.
These programs provide a proven mechanism for delivering targeted assistance and can be easily adapted to deliver more substantial upgrades such as shading, insulation, fans and urban greening.
These built environment improvements would deliver multiple benefits across a range of policy areas, including affordability, emissions reduc-tion, climate resilience and improved health.
We urgently need to address the failure of comprehensive co-ordinated emergency preparedness and response planning, which leaves communities across all states and territories less resilient to heatwaves. This can be improved by including heatwaves in formal emergency management planning.
In a landmark report last year, ACOSS found that despite the crucial role locally based groups play in supporting and rebuilding people’s lives during disasters like bushfires, they are not included in official disaster management planning.
It also found that community groups are critically under-resourced to participate effectively.
While some progress is being made to address this startling omission, more needs to be done to resolve these general policy failures across most jurisdictions.