Heat, shoddy homes and unreliable power leave people weak in remote NT

Key points

  • Aboriginal people in remote parts of Australia’s north are struggling to keep fresh food and life-saving medication cool.
  • A study has found a dangerous combination of hotter temperatures, substandard housing and power issues are behind the problem.
  • The study’s authors have called for medical professionals to advocate for better building codes and housing standards.

Selina Bob, a Pitjantjatjara woman, is one of thousands of Indigenous people living in poorly insulated houses in remote parts of the Northern Territory who suffer exhaustion and hunger when they lose power during record-breaking heat.

“We lose power when it’s very hot,” Bob said. “People get weak in a house with no power,” she said. “We get hungry inside.”

Selina Bob, who has diabetes, describes the challenges of power outages during unprecedented heat.Credit:Justin McManus

Aboriginal people in remote parts of Australia’s north are struggling to keep fresh food and life-saving medication cool, due to a dangerous combination of hotter temperatures caused by climate change, substandard housing and power issues, new research in the Medical Journal of Australia has warned.

In the 1980s, the Territory government changed the way people in remote Indigenous communities pay for their electricity, switching to a user-pays power card system. As a result many impoverished families living in low-quality, poorly insulated houses have their power instantly cut when their money runs dry.

“Houses disconnect from power every fourth day and when it’s hot, and if families are using air conditioning, its every third day, for 10 hours at a time,” said Simon Quilty from the Australian National University who was the report’s lead researcher.

“The thing that many people worry about in the summer is the power going off, and they will prefer to spend money on power cards than on food.”

Lack of power is having a damaging impact on people’s health, particularly those with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, Quilty said.

Many people depend on heat-sensitive medications such as insulin, while most medications have recommended storage temperatures below 30C. For many, this is impossible to achieve.

Bob, who has diabetes, said families in her town, Areyonga, collect firewood from the creek to cook and provide light when the power disconnects, but have nowhere to take shelter from the heat.

Many call family members in other communities to ask for money to power their air conditioners.

Irene Nangala says climate change has permanently altered her land.Credit:Justin McManus

Without air conditioning, the many people in Areyonga with kidney disease became “weak” Bob said.

Pintupi elder Irene Nangala, who has chronic kidney disease and relies on the prepaid power system, told The Age that she and her family regularly sleep outside on warm nights.

She has noticed tangible changes the hotter temperatures have caused to her country.

“It’s getting hotter and hotter,” Nangala said. “There used to be a lot of swamps and there’s not too much grass growing at sacred sites. Animals died because there’s no water. Camels, horses, emu, kangaroos, they’ve died.”

Houses in the desert become dangerously hot amid increasingly sweltering temperatures. The town of Katherine, for example, which averages six days per year over 40 degrees, experienced 56 such days in 2019. The year before, Tennant Creek recorded 28 days above 40 degrees in one month.

Many houses in remote areas in the NT have poor insulation and structural integrity, as buildings in these areas do not require a building permit, while builders do not even have to be registered with the Building Practitioners Board.

The houses often turn into “heat caves”, similar to a car parked in the hot sun, the research warns.

“Tenants pay rent for houses with no doors, no windows, and no insulation in the ceiling. In the extreme heat of the Northern Territory, residents of these dilapidated houses need to run air conditioners all day long to keep the inside safe,” Quilty said.

Despite the ongoing challenges with energy security, only one Indigenous public house in the NT has had a rooftop solar system installed.

The report’s authors have called for urgent action to avert a catastrophe, saying medical professionals must advocate for better building codes and housing standards.

Doctors must explicitly ask about patients’ housing conditions when prescribing treatment and check the thermal stability of their prescriptions.

Quilty, whose research was co-authored with Aboriginal elder Norman Frank Jupurrurla, said every house should be resilient to sharp changes in temperature, include a refrigerator that never switches off, and have an uninterrupted electricity supply, particularly in the hottest parts of the year.

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