‘Bodies start to cook’: poor housing in remote communities puts lives at risk in northern Australia heatwave

Poorly insulated Northern Territory houses that people can’t afford to cool can rise to dangerous temperatures

Homes in remote communities that are so poorly insulated they rise to temperatures that can “cook bodies” will put people’s lives at risk in the coming days as a dangerous heatwave hits northern Australia.

Temperatures are expected to pass 40C in parts of the Northern Territory, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, which has issued a heatwave warning for regions including the Daly, Arnhem, Carpentaria, Gregory, Barkly, Lasseter and Tanami.

Remote communities including Lajamanu, Daguragu and Mataranka are expected to reach 45C between Friday and Sunday.

Simon Quilty, who has worked across various health sectors and communities in the Northern Territory for 20 years, said thousands of homes could become unsafe.

“The quality of the houses is appalling, the design, the construction, and the [lack of] insulation. They are terribly designed and built houses,” Quilty said.

In the 1980s the territory government made it so people in remote Indigenous communities moved to a user-pays power card system – meaning many people find cooling their house, especially in a heatwave, unaffordable, Quilty said.

Last year, research he co-authored with Aboriginal elder Norman Frank Jupurrurla, found that 90% of homes across remote communities lost their power at least once a year.

Taking data from 3,300 homes across 28 communities, the research found 74% of homes had their power disconnected more than 10 times across the 2018-19 finical year.

“People who are impoverished, who have to pre-purchase their power, run out of power and their houses disconnect,” Quilty said.

Colour-coded map showing areas of extreme heat across the NT
Three-day heatwave forecast for the Northern Territory from Wednesday 7 December. Photograph: Bureau of Meteorology

He said in other parts of Australia people were protected by the Australian Energy Regulator guidelines, which rule that no one on life-support equipment can be disconnected, but that was not always applied in NT communities.

Not only does this create food insecurity and issues for people trying to keep medicines at the right temperatures, but poorly insulated houses heat to a level that would start baking a human body, he said.

“If it’s 45 degrees, they become thermally dangerous, so people have to exit the houses because they become hotter than outside,” Quilty said.

“Above 45 degrees Celsius is beyond the temperature people can cope with – bodies start to cook and people start to die.”

Buildings in the NT do not require a permit and builders do not have to be registered with a Building Practitioners Board, which means many of them have little to no insulation and are not made to deal with the climate, he said.

“The issues of energy insecurity, extreme heat and health are all intertwined,” Quilty said.

“The NT government has failed along with the federal government since the era of colonisation and we are in a dangerous predicament.”

Across remote communities people have some of the highest rates of diabetes and cardiac disease anywhere in the world, making them even more susceptible to radical temperatures, he said.

“There’s a complete disconnect and lack of preparation for a hotter future. It’s an absolute and complete failure,” Quilty said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the NT government said new homes being built are designed to handle local climatic conditions, including extreme heat.

“A new program to install split system air conditioning systems in the living room of all new remote public housing is also being implemented,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said the government was currently building remote homes as part of the $2.1bn housing package, which is jointly funded with the federal government.

“All homes are required to achieve the silver standard of the Liveable Housing Design Guidelines with the program exceeding energy efficiency targets, averaging a 6.4 star energy rating, with some homes achieving ratings in excess of 7,” the spokesperson said.

On Tuesday NT Health encouraged people to use fans and damp towels if they don’t have air-conditioning, or to find shady areas with a breeze and drink cold or iced water.

The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliances NT (Amsant) chief executive, John Paterson, said heatwaves were particularly dangerous for people who had underlying chronic illnesses.

“That’s why it is important we encourage and remind people to stay hydrated, stay out of the sun, find a cool shaded area to keep cool under and avoid any activities that will put strain and stress,” Paterson said.

Paterson said the government needs to ensure communities have backup plans for when the power goes out – such as generators or waiving fees on the power cards.

“Cost of living is impacting on all of us, more so in remote communities, so we have to be a bit flexible and generous if families can’t afford their power cards,” he said.

Paterson also called for local governments to open up swimming pools for free if they have one.

“Again, not everyone can afford the entry fees. It’s a small thing and it’ll assist in managing health impacts,” he said.


Cait Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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