Our Future || Adapting to heatwaves should be a priority

Rising mercury on the front line of disasters

Along with the bushfire tragedy in recent weeks temperature records have been smashed. These extreme temperatures contributed to the severe fire weather conditions, however, on their own they can be deadly and often underrated.

According to research conducted by Risk Frontiers, heatwaves are Australia's most deadly natural hazard with historical deaths greater than the sum of all other hazards such as bushfires, floods and tropical cyclones combined. Four of Australia's top 10 most deadly natural hazard events have been heatwaves. The 2009 and 2014 heatwaves combined resulted in almost 600 deaths. There are no reasons why even deadlier heatwaves could not occur.

Those most at-risk include the very young, old and those with chronic medical conditions. Pets and animals too can be affected.

Impacts of heatwaves are typically not well reported, yet the consequences are felt across the community, economy, environment and political spheres. In many cases, impacts are compounded by drought, bushfire, poor air quality and water safety risks. It is tragic that 114 people drowned last summer.

The economic costs are significant due to lost productivity and workforce absenteeism. Agriculture is routinely impacted resulting in shortages of some produce. Some 20% of heatwave fatalities are workplace related.

Additional demand for power during the heatwaves can place stress on electricity infrastructure resulting in disruption to power supply to households and businesses. A heatwave in Victoria in January 2019 resulted in disruption of power to 200,000 customers who were advised to reduce their power usage. Previous heatwaves have also disrupted road and rail transportation.

Despite recent improvements in forecasting and warnings, more action is required to manage heatwave risk. Our research has shown that not all residents respond to heatwave warnings and some are reluctant to run air conditioners due to energy price concerns.

Communication with the most vulnerable, particularly the elderly, in advance of heatwave conditions is essential. Community service organisations are well placed to assist with outreach programs targeting the most at-risk but require funding support.

Much more is needed to fully understand the effects of heatwaves across Australia given the likely increase in frequency as a result of climate change. Given the scale of mortality and disruption, the adoption of heat sensitivity in urban design, the adaption of business practices and better risk communication are vital. Reducing carbon emissions is of course a given.

In any national or state response to our summer of disasters, heatwaves must be front and centre.

Andrew Gissing, emergency and risk management expert, Risk Frontiers