Are we prepared for heatwaves, high-rise living and an ageing population?
Rising temperatures, an ageing population, increased high-rise apartment living and more older people living alone are combining to increase the risk of deaths during heatwaves.
Dr Leigh Wilson, from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Health Sciences, says most people don’t even know if their buildings have back-up power to maintain cooling and lift access during black-outs.
“Only five percent of aged care facilities have back up power generation, and people are unaware whether their apartments have back up power,” says Wilson. “People assume electricity will continue, that there will be access to air-conditioning or a fan, and people haven’t thought about how to get out if the power goes down and lifts aren’t working. It highlights that people living in high-rise buildings don’t know they are at risk.”
Wilson says there is plenty of evidence that people are at risk if exposed to extended high temperatures. “Heatwaves are known to contribute to increased mortality in populations aged over 65 years. In very hot weather, people with any cardiac history are more likely to die when exposed to extreme heat.”
She says several issues combine to increase the threat to older people. “By 2025 at least 30 percent of the population will be over 65, with many older than that. In addition, there’s a push for high density and high-rise living, especially social housing in urban areas. And we know temperatures will continue to rise. Looking at all these together, it is reminiscent of the scenario in Europe in 2003, where a catastrophic heatwave killed around 14,000 people; the majority of these were older, isolated people who couldn’t get out of high-rise dwellings.”
Wilson is calling for a conversation across governments to address the risk to older people in high-rise apartments. ‘This is real, so we need to build adaptation strategies into the way we lead our daily lives. We need to look at construction policies, consider the provision of backup power generation, and ensure there are contingency plans for heatwaves and other extremes weather events such as fires.
“It’s important to think about ‘what if’, as there’s no point saying down the track ‘we should have’,” she says.
Wilson presented her paper, Heatwaves, high-rise and the ageing population: are we prepared? at the Climate Adaptation 2018 conference in Melbourne.
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