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'Heat refuges' may be one solution to Western Sydney's climate emergency

By Mridula Amin, Monday January 18, 2021 - 15:46 EDT
ABC image
Ian Epondulan's church is signing up as a "heat refuge" to tackle scorching summers. - ABC

Ian Epondulan knows the heatwaves well.

The 31-year-old has lived in Western Sydney his entire life, and often dreads the summer months.

On the really sweltering days, the oral health therapist and his family often take refuge in an air-conditioned 24-hour shopping centre in Blacktown.

The family do have air-conditioning at their Seven Hills home that they rent, but the cost of running it is prohibitive.

"The option to drive 15 minutes and get immediate relief is just a better option," Mr Epondulan said.

"Walking through those doors, you just sigh."

Last summer, Western Sydney residents sweated through 37 days over 35 degrees Celsius and today, the mercury is expected to reach 37C in some areas.

Heat is causing major headaches for Sydney's most populous local government area, Blacktown, which is trying to convince organisations to create "heat refuges".

A heat refuges is a cool zone with good air-conditioning and facilities where the community can go on an extreme heat day to comfortably relax for hours at a time if they cannot at home.

Our Lady of Lourdes, where Mr Epondulan is an active member, has signed up, meaning they have offered the air-conditioned church and a nearby hall as venues that would become go-to places on high heat days for the local community to gather at ? with toilets, comfortable seating and cold water close by.

"Now it's up to the council to find the places in this local government area where they can send people on those extreme hot days as heat refuges," he said.

A Blacktown City Council spokesperson told the ABC the heat refuge program is in the strategy stages and will begin a trial in coming weeks as it creates a shortlist of potential venues.

"The aim of the strategy is to ensure vulnerable residents, like those who are elderly or living with disability and without air-conditioning, can access shelter from extreme heat and heatwaves," they said.

Blacktown City Council declared a climate emergency in February last year, and is committed to zero net emissions by 2040.

Hot days ? maximum temperatures above 35C ? are expected to increase across the state by an average of 26 days per year according to the NSW Government Office of Environment and Heritage.

Teacher Zubaida Alrubai, 27, who lives in Mt Druitt with her parents and two siblings, believes more should be done to keep Sydney's west cool.

"Clean and affordable energy is one of the key priorities for migrant communities and people of colour, particularly with so many people renting in the west," she said.

Her father Adid works as a school bus driver, but despite the multiple incomes, paying the power bill ? which can top $800 per quarter if they use the air-conditioning ? can be tough.

Like many other families they escape the heat and keep down costs by heading to the mall, community centres or the library.

"Right now, the idea of creating heat refuges I think is the best option as it's affordable and no-one needs to invest upfront," Ms Alrubai said.

Riverstone GP Kim Loo, the NSW chair of an advocacy group for medical professionals, Doctors for the Environment Australia, said heat had a "domino effect" on a peoples' health.

Hot weather disrupts peoples sleep and exercise routines, which Dr Loo says could increase the health inequality gap already seen in Sydney's west.

"I'm getting more and more comments around not being able to exercise," she said.

"As a doctor you feel like there's only so much you can do in primary care when the environment around you is fundamentally changing."

She is concerned vulnerable people, like the elderly, will not be able to manage their health during heatwaves.

"If you can't exercise when it's too hot, you'll become unfit, if there's no cool spaces to gather, you become increasingly isolated," she said.

Anoop Sud and his wife Neeru are in that category.

In the 46 years of their marriage they've taken a daily walk outside together after meals to stay active but in the past year, that?s been disrupted.

Despite living in a new house with solar panels in Stanhope Gardens, Mr Sud, 72, says he still can't afford to turn his air-conditioning on.

Last year, when the mercury reached 44.5C on February 1, Mr Sud said he was short of breath.

Mr Sud says he's looking forward to having a government-designated place to go.

"It will be nice to have a place where you can talk comfortably with a friend and be able to go to the toilet," he said.

"At the park, the library and even at a busy mall, that's not always possible."


© ABC 2021

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