Australia’s Indigenous communities are facing a daunting challenge as the impacts of climate change intensify. Research conducted in 2021 by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) has revealed that remote Indigenous housing models are ill-equipped to withstand climate change. If no action is taken, these communities are likely to be rendered unsuitable for future habitation, compelling Indigenous peoples to consider migrating away from their ancestral lands.
The Inadequacy of Current Housing Models
According to the AHURI Report, even the best-maintained housing in remote Aboriginal communities will not be sufficient to shield residents from the worst impacts of climate change. The researchers conducted 366 simulations of Indigenous housing models across three different climate zones, and the results were alarming. None of the housing models demonstrated thermal performance suitable for existing conditions, let alone the increasingly optimistic scenarios of a 1.5-degree Celsius rise in temperature associated with climate change.
The Connection Between Health and Climate-Resilient Housing
Professor Tess Lea from the University of British Columbia, one of the researchers involved in the study, emphasised the critical intersection between climate-resilient housing and the health of Indigenous communities. She stated that people living with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, already struggle in high heat. As climate change exacerbates extreme temperatures, the sustainability of living in current housing conditions becomes questionable. Professor Lea explained that without significant changes, including improved housing and health policies, migration might become the only viable option for many Indigenous individuals and communities.
The Call for Comprehensive Policy Changes
The AHURI report criticises the current state of remote and regional Aboriginal housing, highlighting a concerning "unstated assumption" among governments that undersupplying substandard housing with inconsistent repairs and maintenance is a sustainable approach. The report calls for the development of a national policy on climate change and Indigenous housing, urging policymakers to prioritise climate preparedness in new builds, refurbishments, and retrofit programs. Mere reliance on the resilience of Indigenous communities is deemed insufficient and unfair, as substandard housing fails to provide a suitable living environment.
Overcrowding: A Barrier to Climate-Resilient Housing
The research findings indicated that overcrowding exacerbates the challenges associated with thermal control, regardless of housing design. The research team simulated scenarios featuring 5 (five), 7 (seven), and 16 (sixteen) individuals in a three-bedroom house, a common situation in remote Australia. Even at the upper limit of 16 people, the housing models proved inadequate, highlighting the urgent need for action. The report highlights that failure to provide sustainable housing could lead to forced migration becoming the de facto policy response.
Towards Sustainable Housing Solutions
To ensure climate-resilient housing, planned maintenance is crucial. Rather than focusing solely on emergency repairs, proactive maintenance helps houses withstand heat and the pressure of accommodating multiple generations. The report also underlines the need to reduce maintenance costs, which are currently three times higher for remote housing compared to capital cities. Developing strategies to mitigate these costs is a key goal for policymakers. Furthermore, employing fit-for-purpose building materials and appliances, implementing sustainable cooling systems, and incorporating renewable energy sources such as solar panels are essential steps towards creating economically efficient and sustainable housing solutions.
The Role of Adequate Funding
The researchers highlight the importance of increased funding for housing providers to meet the operating and maintenance costs associated with climate-resilient housing. Adequate financial support is necessary to ensure that Indigenous communities have access to safe and sustainable housing, thereby mitigating the risks of forced migration and addressing the pressing challenges of climate change.
The urgency to address the inadequacy of current Indigenous housing models in the face of climate change cannot be overstated. The research conducted by AHURI underscores the need for immediate action to create climate-resilient housing solutions for Australia’s Indigenous communities. Governments and policymakers must develop a comprehensive national policy on climate change and Indigenous housing, with a particular emphasis on climate preparedness in new builds, refurbishments, and retrofit programs. By investing in sustainable housing and providing adequate funding for housing providers, we can ensure a brighter, more secure future for Indigenous Australians, enabling them to remain on their ancestral lands while adapting to the challenges of a changing climate.