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‘For us it is forever’ – climate justice for NT town camps

Introduction by Croakey: For the world’s Indigenous peoples, climate change does not merely represent a hazard to health through more intense weather extremes, frequency of disasters, changing disease patterns and loss of livelihood.

It will mean loss of country, culture and connection, impacting these groups like no other citizenry on Earth. But Indigenous practices and perspectives also hold powerful solutions to the climate crisis.

A group known as the Torres Strait Eight have taken Australia to the UN Human Rights Committee, arguing their fundamental rights to life and culture are under threat as a result of climate change. The case could set a global precedent on the impacts of climate change on culture and Indigenous peoples.

Senior Aboriginal researcher at the Tangentyere Council Aboriginal Corporation Vanessa Davis recently spoke about the impact of climate change for people living in the Northern Territory’s town camps. There are fears parts of the Northern Territory could become uninhabitable due to heat in coming decades, and those living in Town Camps, remote communities and outstations stand to be the worst affected, displacing many thousands of people.

Davis, herself a Town Camper, was speaking at a Researcherenye Wappayalawangka – Central Australia Academic Health Science Network forum, and her remarks are published here with permission.


Vanessa Davis writes:

Town Campers are worried about climate change and its impact on our health and wellbeing.

Last financial year we had 45 days over 40 degrees and 129 days over 35 degrees. In 2018/19 we had 55 days over 40 degrees, and 129 days over 35 degrees.

Our houses don’t have split systems and they aren’t well insulated. We have prepayment meters. When it’s hot we use more power and can’t always keep the power running.

We want clean, cheap and reliable solar power.

We have got so much sun, why do we continue to burn diesel to make electricity? Why, when water is so precious would we consider the idea of fracking? Putting our drinking water at risk just isn’t worth it.

Some people come and go from this place but for us it is forever. At the end of the day people can move but there is only one planet.

This is our place. If it gets too hot, if we suffer through endless droughts, or we spoil our water then we don’t have another place to go.

We feel sorry for those people who are losing their homes because of climate change and rising sea levels. That could be us, Aboriginal people losing their home because of climate change.

For us it won’t be the sea but heat and drought. We can’t let that happen because we’ve haven’t got another place to go.

Infrastructure issues

Before the Intervention, Aboriginal organisations like Tangentyere Council worked with Healthabitat to implement the Healthy Living Practices. This meant that our houses had good hardware to support good health.

One of these Healthy Living Practices was about the temperature of our houses, making sure that houses didn’t get too hot in summer or too cold in winter.

This approach meant that houses had insulation and shade so that we wouldn’t need to run our air-conditioners all the time. These older houses also had solar hot water and pot belly stoves for the winter. We could collect wood, and the sun heated the water.

The new houses built by the Government since the Intervention have electric hot water heaters and no pot belly stoves. When the old houses were upgraded, pot belly stoves were removed. Our houses don’t have heating anymore.

Most Town Campers don’t have much money so residents buy cheap fan heaters. The problem with these is that they are expensive to run and bad for the environment.

Our houses have become expensive to heat and expensive to cool, and we run out of money for electricity.

When the power goes off it is bad for our health, the food gets spoiled, we can’t wash our clothes and we can’t wash our kids.

Sadly, many people on the Town Camps suffer from diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These people, together with the old, the disabled and our kids, are hurt the most by climate change, heat and energy insecurity.

In summer, when our houses are hot or when we don’t have electricity our people look for comfort in air-conditioned public places. We are not always welcome in these places, and sometimes there are problems.

We are thankful for places like the library and the pool but if coronavirus comes to the Northern Territory over summer then we might not be able to use these places.

We want houses that are right for this place and right for our people. We want to invest in renewable energy, like solar.

Most of all we want people to treat this place as a legacy to be handed down to our children and grandchildren. It is not a speculative commodity and it is not something to be sold or exported.

We have been here for a long time and want to look after this place for those that come after.

My co-worker, Denise Foster and I have been getting consent from tenants so that we can access to household energy data. Jacana has provided data for one Town Camp’s households so far.

On this Town Camp the average household will have 51 involuntary self-disconnections a year. The average household will be disconnected for 238 hours per year. This is a big problem for us.

Finally, I should mention that Tangentyere Council Research Hub is working with CSIRO to install data loggers in households. This is to measure the temperatures of houses over 12 months. We want to demonstrate that houses are getting too hot to provide the best health outcomes.

Tangentyere Council and its partners will use this information to help tackle the future housing and infrastructure needs of our Town Camps.

Vanessa Davis is senior Aboriginal researcher at the Tangentyere Council Aboriginal Corporation