Indigenous knowledge of how to handle extreme weather could help society adapt in energy-saving ways to a hotter future, say the authors of a study in scientific journal The Lancet. By Dechlan Brennan.

Indigenous lessons for surviving the heat

The main street of a small town.
A street in Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory.
Credit: Tillman Schlageter / Alamy

When you arrive in Tennant Creek, 1000km south of Darwin, what hits you first is the absence of smells. Usually the air is permeated with the cooking of kangaroo but now it is barely there.

In the last heatwave, dead kangaroos were found at the bottom of watering holes previously thought to have never dried up. Some locals believed kangaroos could never fall victim to thirst, that they would always find a place to drink. It wasn’t true.

Warumungu Elder Norman Frank Jupurrurla doesn’t need to consult records. He says his experience with the area over his lifetime tells him one thing for certain: it’s getting hotter. The decline of kangaroo populations, and the resulting impact on human food sources, is just one sign.

“It’s getting worse and harder,” he tells The Saturday Paper from his home in Tennant Creek. “The climate is changing, you know? It’s changing every year. It’s different than three years ago, it’s different from five years ago. It’s changing.”

Dr Simon Quilty, of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, is direct when describing the impact climate change is having on the area: “It is an ecological disaster.”

He is the lead author of a new article in The Lancet, analysing heat-mortality rates in the Northern Territory. Despite spending more time in air-conditioned spaces over the past 40 years, people in the Northern Territory have become more vulnerable to heat-related deaths.

The study, which involved Associate Professor Aparna Lal, of the ANU, and Jupurrurla, also found that despite high rates of chronic illness, socioeconomic and housing inequity, and far less access to air-conditioned spaces, Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory were no more likely to die from the heat than the local non-Indigenous population.

Quilty says this discrepancy appears to be cultural. He says it is “a story of how Aboriginal culture and knowledge of environment has enabled extraordinary resilience to extreme weather”.

Having spent considerable time in the Northern Territory, including spells working at hospitals in Katherine, Darwin and Alice Springs, Quilty says his interest came out of observing the experiences of the people he was meeting.

“There’s been no action in academia around the threats of climate change in the NT,” he says. “Drivers of poor health around this extreme new heat was just in my face every day as a doctor working at Katherine Hospital.

“It is very apparent that culture is the way that Aboriginal people have dealt with the extreme climates that non-Indigenous people would consider hostile.”

Climate change is increasing heat-associated mortality, especially in hotter parts of the world. The Northern Territory, with its sparse deserts and hot climate, is particularly susceptible to the effects of the warming planet.

In Katherine, they call it the build-up. Starting in mid-October, day after day sees relentless heat. Statistics show higher levels of suicide and domestic violence in the evenings. Various tropical infectious diseases also become more pronounced during this time of the year.

Quilty’s experiences in Katherine were enough for him to realise that extreme and unrelenting heat could cause psychological stress, which manifested itself in what locals called suicide season. It is only getting worse.

More than 300km south of Darwin, Katherine averages about six days a year above 40 degrees. In 2019, it had 54 days above that temperature. This heat is pushing at the boundaries of what human beings can endure.

Quilty believes listening to Indigenous people and their culture is vital in adapting for the future. Too often, the real-world response is focused on improving infrastructure and providing air-conditioned spaces. While these are not negatives, there is a lack of consultation with the communities that have shown a remarkable resilience to the heat.

“I think that Western society has this strong belief that technology will save us all,” he says. “For me, having spent 20 years working with Traditional Owners and Elders across remote Northern Australia, I could see that they were incredibly strong. They mitigated the risks and accepted the climate.”

Jupurrurla is as adept as anyone at handling the unrelenting heat of Tennant Creek. He believes that the life of community starts with gwarda.

“In my language, gwarda means ears,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

“It means a lot of things. It means listening, and hearing. And even not hearing, like going through one ear to another.

“When people used to go hunting, they never used to in summer. Wintertime is the best for hunting. You can travel long distances but not during the summer. There’s everything then: snakes and lizards all hanging around. It’s too dangerous. That is gwarda.”

He argues money has driven society to disregard its own wellbeing and safety.

“Take contractors, they get paid by time … They go out and put a fence up, or a roof on a house, in 45-degree heat. He doesn’t think about his own health or his own safety. It can kill,” he says. “We don’t do this. Even if we broke down halfway down the road, we don’t start walking. No, we are sitting under the shade, waiting until late in the afternoon.”

Aparna Lal agrees, telling The Saturday Paper society should use Indigenous knowledge to prepare for the future.

“It’s time we let other perspectives in and drive climate change adaptation going forward,” she says.

All the authors note these practices exist to best protect people from the elements but are being disregarded. For Lal, the advancement in technology may not always be a universal positive.

“While the study didn’t look at the impact of air-conditioning, and in no way suggests that technologies and the latest know-how should not be used, it strongly indicates that the use of such technologies and infrastructural capabilities needs to be locally relevant and culturally acceptable and sustainable in the settings they are put in.”

One argument put forward to deal with the heat is sleeping in the middle of the day. Jupurrurla notes it’s something people in Tennant Creek have always done.

“When it’s 45-degree heat, we don’t walk around, we don’t move,” he says.

“No, we wait until it gets cool … We wait until six or seven o’clock, when the sun isn’t around.”

Quilty says the research backs up resting during the middle of the day, when the heat is at its worst.

“It’s an obvious solution and it’s free for the individual,” he says. “It doesn’t have a carbon footprint and it is almost certainly protecting health when there’s no other means in dealing with such extreme heat.”

Quilty knows the temperatures are getting to the point that even the most adaptable people are feeling the impact. “We really are at that turning point,” he says.

He says he was told during the study that if the recent heatwave and resultant drought had occurred 200 years ago, everyone would have died.

“We’re kind of reaching this threshold point and that’s a really great concern … What happens next?” he says. “These thresholds are coming close and so we do need air-conditioning for the new extremes that we’re experiencing.” But, he says, Aboriginal people can explain to us that air-conditioning is not essential to survival.

Instead, an argument exists for the focus to be on people’s ability to live comfortably with a small energy cost. Remote Northern Territory communities have some of the world’s most energy-insecure dwellings.

“Simply, this means starting by listening to the communities about what will work. In this case, it may be more useful to direct our technologies towards making housing more compatible with the surrounding environment,” Lal says.

The less energy efficient a house, the more electricity it will use to keep it thermally safe. Rising temperatures put even more pressure on disadvantaged communities. Norman Frank Jupurrurla has campaigned for better housing, to ensure safe living for everyone.

“We need to change this. We need [better] housing and we should make it more insulated. In all of these brick houses it’s cold in winter and the summer it’s really hot and there’s no breeze … When it is late in the afternoon, the sun is burning the wall and it makes the house … hotter.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2023 as "Lessons in heat resilience".

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