Kevin Dooley/Flickr

Extreme heat exposes social injustice Analysis

Extreme heat exposes social injustice

For many Victorians, extreme heat is more than just an inconvenience, it’s a real health hazard.

Victoria is known for its volatile weather, and in summer this includes the dreaded heatwaves. Days-on-end of temperatures in the mid-30s to 40s take their toll on everyone. But for many, including people on low incomes, living in substandard housing, older people and people with pre-existing health conditions, Victoria’s heatwaves are more than just an excuse to head to the beach, they are a real threat to health and wellbeing.

Along with creating a need to look after those who are vulnerable, the extreme heat of summer also exposes just where the inequities in our society lie, breaking them open like gaping cracks in a dry riverbed.

“Extreme heat, arguably more than any other disaster experienced in Australia, reveals deep-rooted social inequalities associated with access to quality housing, the availability of social services, social isolation, mobility, and energy poverty. Prolonged periods of extreme heat reveal social injustices.”

Public understanding and emergency responses to the risks posed by extreme heat have improved in recent times, and they are increasingly recognised to affect people’s health, physical and mental wellbeing, particularly people facing disadvantage.

But a need remains for longer term action. This includes considering housing quality, efficient energy use and the role of the community sector.

Along with creating a need to look after those who are vulnerable, the extreme heat of summer also exposes just where the inequities in our society lie, breaking them open like gaping cracks in a dry riverbed.

Homes that are poorly designed, are ageing, are in disrepair or have no cooling or window coverings can be dangerous to live in. In fact The Age warned  recently that if Victoria faced a heatwave similar to that in 2009, poor quality houses could become solar ovens and ‘cook’ people inside.

Poor-quality, energy-inefficient homes are also a major cause of unaffordable energy use. Common causes of energy inefficiency are little or no insulation; inefficient or faulty heating, cooling and hot water devices; significant draughts caused by broken windows and frames, collapsing roofs and holes in flooring, and a lack of window coverings.

Uninsulated homes use about twice the energy of insulated homes for cooling. In 2009, 50 per cent of Victorian private rental properties were effectively uninsulated, and just 11 per cent were adequately insulated. In addition, Victoria’s public housing is increasingly dilapidated and no longer fit-for-purpose, with about 10,000 public housing units nearing obsolescence.

Location can also exacerbate the problem. A study by Monash University found the areas in Melbourne most vulnerable to heatwave included those with high proportions of elderly residents, non-English-speaking households, and hot urban areas lacking vegetation. Poor quality housing and a lack of rental rights for tenants can worsen the effects of heatwaves, particularly in the more densely populated parts of Melbourne.

Low-income households are more likely to have inefficient cooling appliances, and spend twice as much on electricity and gas as a proportion of their total income than middle-income households. In fact, unaffordable energy bills are a leading cause of financial hardship. In the face of high energy bills and the growing risk of extreme heat, people need flexible, targeted assistance to manage any bill payment difficulties. With electricity set to become more costly, it will become increasingly unaffordable for low-income people to stay cool during a heatwave.

We know that programs that deliver improved energy efficiency equipment, training and practices can improve health and reduce climate risk. For example the Energy Saver Study, which provided home retrofits plus behaviour change support programs to low income households, saw a 10-11 per cent reduction in total energy use. Importantly it also helped to overcome social isolation through improved communication and establishing links with community organisations. In our 2017-18 State Budget Submission, VCOSS has called for a program to expand energy efficient retrofits to social housing stock to help create secure, affordable and healthy social housing for people living on low incomes.

The community sector plays a critical role in periods of extreme heat, with community health centres, neighbourhood houses, housing and homelessness and other community organisations providing linkages, advice and support to people who are vulnerable. Carers, community nurses, health workers, maternal and child health nurses and others also provide support.  These are crucial to not only providing immediate assistance, but to maintaining and building the vital social connections that enable people to cope with and adapt to heat.

A new RMIT project Heatwaves, Homes and Health, is seeking to understand the various dimensions of wellbeing, including health risks, that emerge from inadequate home cooling and financial stress related to home cooling. RMIT is keen to engage with health and social service organisations for input on the priority research issues and related components of the research through a survey that has been designed for people working in the health and social service sectors to share their experience, insights and concerns on the research topic.

Victoria can reduce the impacts and chronic effects of extreme heat for people living on low incomes and who may otherwise be vulnerable, by improving housing quality, providing access to energy efficiency retrofits and education, and by strengthening local community services. Not only will this protect people’s health and wellbeing, it will also have longer term resilience benefits for individuals and communities by creating opportunities for stronger social connections.

As summer heats up let’s ensure we protect our most vulnerable community members against the heat by ensuring their homes are more comfortable, helping them reduce their energy and living costs, and enhancing their health and wellbeing.