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By John Kelly.
Published on the VCOSS Voice on 16 January 2014.
Victoria is sweltering as the heatwave which has held much of the rest of the continent in its grip in recent weeks makes its presence felt across south-eastern Australia. With temperatures in the high 30s and into the 40s over the course of this week it is a timely reminder of the impact that heatwaves have on our community and a good time to review advice on how to cope with extreme heat events.
VCOSS has continually warned of the impact of heatwave on vulnerable Victorians and called for dedicated action to prepare for and address what is the single largest natural disaster hazard in the State.
Our report, Feeling the heat: Heatwaves and social vulnerability in Victoria, released in March last year, made the strong case for the need to include heatwave events in the State’s emergency management and disaster planning framework.
Every year in Victoria heatwaves kill more people than all other natural disasters combined. Yet heatwaves are not included in the State’s emergency management plans – potentially putting more lives at risk.
Following the 2009 Victorian heatwave the Victorian Government undertook an extensive process of policy development and community engagement. This included the development of the Victorian Statewide Heatwave Plan, a heat alert system, work with the aged care and supported accommodation sectors and provision of funding to local governments to prepare heatwave plans, with assistance from the Heatwave Planning Guide.
Since 2010 there has been very limited further investment in preparing for heatwaves. There are also concerns that significant numbers of Victorians, many of them disadvantaged and socially isolated, continue to be at risk from extreme heat.
The Victorian Government has undertaken a valuable review of Victoria’s Emergency Management system, and is in the process of implementing some positive changes to improve how all Victoria’s systems manage emergency events. It is unfortunate that the new approach does not incorporate heatwaves.
This week we have seen a number of issues emerge that relate directly to how we think about and plan for heatwave emergencies.
Power disruptions can have a significant impact on vulnerable people, particularly older people, people with disabilities or experiencing ill health or people who are housebound for other reasons. Earlier this week energy retailer SP AusNet cut the power supply to the town of Thoona and surrounding area in the state’s north-east. SP AusNet maintains it was necessary to cut the electricity supply so the company could undertake scheduled maintenance as part of bushfire mitigation. Such maintenance work is important, but better planning is critical to ensure that the health of people is not put at risk as occurred in this instance, requiring the local council to step in to deliver water to affected communities. A more coordinated approach is clearly required.
Today electricity suppliers and the Victorian Energy Minister, Nick Kotsiras, are warning of impending power outages across the state as demand for power exceeds network supply and electricity infrastructure struggles with the increased load.
The impact of heatwaves on people who are homeless also needs to be given greater priority and better understanding. Organisations that work with homeless people also need to be supported to be able to provide free amenities like water, sunscreen or access to a safe, cool environment where people can retreat from the heat.
VCOSS members have reported a range of alarming stories about the conditions some Victorians are forced to face during extreme heat events, including:
We also need to think how we can better use our community resources. For example, in South Australia this week, Health SA hospitals in regional and rural areas were opened to provide air conditioned spaces for people to cool down. Such steps have been taken by individual organisations in Victoria, but a more planned and coordinated approach is needed.
The role of community sector organisations in emergency management
Community sector organisations are at the frontline in responding to emergencies and natural events such as heatwaves. Yet all too often they do not have the resources to effectively plan emergency management responses.
The Victorian Government is undertaking welcome major reforms in emergency management following recommendations made by the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission and inquiries relating to the 2010-11 floods. The Government has committed to better plan and develop an holistic approach to deliver emergency relief and recovery services with the not-for-profit sector, community groups and private sectors. This commitment provides a unique opportunity to share responsibility in emergencies by building the capacity of the community sector.
The prevalence and severity of heatwaves is likely to increase in coming years as climate change leads to more extreme weather events. It is appropriate that we take action now to better plan for this inevitability by including heatwaves in our emergency planning.
VCOSS has recommended the following actions to better plan for heatwaves:
John Kelly is the VCOSS Media Coordinator