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Too hot for humans? First Nations people fear becoming Australia's first climate refugees

  • Aboriginal people in Alice Springs say global heating threatens their survival

  • The town had 55 days above 40C in the year to July 2019

  • Central Australian outstations are running out of water

  • Poor quality housing in town camps cannot be cooled effectively

  • Indigenous leaders fear extreme heat will cause influx of internal refugees

Josie Douglas sits on a verandah overlooking a ridge of red rocks and earth, scrubby with saltbush and spinifex near the centre of Alice Springs. It’s late afternoon and only 31C – a reprieve from a run of days in the high 30s and 40s.

But Douglas knows that from now on it will only get hotter.

Last summer was the hottest on record, and the driest in 27 years in central Australia. Five per cent of the town’s street trees died. A heat monitoring study showed that on some unshaded streets the surface temperature was between 61C and 68C.

“We can’t keep going on the way we’re going,” says Douglas, who is manager of policy and research at the Central Land Council.

“Central Australian Aboriginal people are very resilient. They have evolved to cope with the harsh and variable desert climate, but there are limits.

“Without action to stop climate change, people will be forced to leave their country and leave behind much of what makes them Aboriginal. Climate change is a clear and present threat to the survival of our people and their culture.”

Across central Australia, people are bracing themselves for another scorching summer of drought.

At least nine remote communities and outstations are running out of water. A further 12 have reported poor quality drinking water as aquifers run low and the remaining supply is saline.

Temperature records have already been broken. In the year to July 2019, Alice Springs had 129 days over 35C, and 55 days over 40C.

It wasn’t meant to be like this – at least, not yet. The national science agency, the CSIRO, predictedthat these temperatures would not arrive until 2030.

As the Northern Territory’s environment minister, Eva Lawler, said last September: “If we don’t do anything, the NT will become unliveable.”

The problem is where to start.

In Alice Springs opinion is divided among local politicians about the impact climate change is having on life in the desert.

‘The antidote to despair is action’

The Pintupi-Luritja artist Irene Nangala was among the first to return to her home country at Kintore in the western desert, near the border with Western Australia, in the early 1980s.

Until then, Pintupi people had been living a long way from home at the mission at Papunya, and they were homesick.

Nangala helped set up the Kintore school. It was a “windbreak school” at first, she says: just a tarp to keep the sun and the rain water out.

“Then we got a few teachers. It was hard work. We’ve got a proper good school now, proper shop. Nice clinic and aged care, child care.”

Nangala says she doesn’t have an air-conditioner. On hot days the family puts blankets on the windows. Other elders whose aircon units break down have to wait for a repairer to come from Alice Springs, more than 10 hours’ drive away.

“It’s really hot in Kintore. We can’t go and sit outside. We have to go at night to sit down with the families.”

Nevertheless, Nangala says she does not want to leave.

“We built up Kintore,’ she says. “People are really enjoying going back to their grandfather’s land. That’s the right thing to do. And it’s good for them to go back, the old people, good for the heart and the spirit.

“When they went first, they cried, they missed that place for a long time

Nangala says people don’t want to come into town, where life might be worse.

“Climate change is true,” Nangala says. “They [politicians] got the map and weather things, they should see the temperature what is happening around Australia, it’s so hot.”

Jimmy Cocking says: “We are walking blindly into the new climate reality. We’ve moved beyond hope, and we can’t be running on hope alone.

“The only thing that is going to get us over the line is action. And the antidote to despair is action.

“So there’s a lot of things that we need to be looking to change so that we aren’t going to be putting people’s lives at risk.”

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