People at Risk Need Protection Before Another Hot Summer

Last summer Spain recorded four heat waves, with a total of 24 days of extreme heat. Credit: Shutterstock
  • Opinion by Jonas Bull (brussels)
  • Inter Press Service
  • Jonas Bull is with the disability rights division at Human Rights Watch.

Leo, a 10-year-old boy from Seville whom I met while investigating the impacts of extreme heat on people with disabilities in Andalusia, has epidermolysis bullosa, or “butterfly skin,” a rare genetic condition in which the skin can blister at the slightest touch. In the summer heat, sweating can lead to more blisters while open wounds can lead to dehydration.

Unlike most children in Andalusia, for whom summer means spending time at the beach with friends and family, for Leo, summer is agonizing. The past summers, hotter than average, were incredibly difficult for Leo, who had to stay indoors for several weeks.

Last summer Spain recorded four heat waves, with a total of 24 days of extreme heat. Climate scientists have confirmed that increased temperatures in Spain are linked to climate change, and projected that heat waves will increase in frequency and intensity. That means that Leo may have to spend even more time indoors this summer.

The people with disabilities I met last year told me that in addition to feeling the physical and psychological effects of the heat, they felt abandoned by their government and lacked outside support. Lidia, Leo’s mother, said the local authorities did not contact their family or provide specific information on how to protect themselves during heat waves.

This should have happened as the government of Andalusia, like those of other regions in Spain and the national government, created heatwave action plans mandating health and social services to undertake specific measures between mid-May and September to respond to and mitigate the impact on groups at risk, including reaching out and offering support to those at risk.

City officials and Health Ministry officials I spoke to admitted the information they provided about heat measures was not provided in formats that would be accessible to people with various disabilities.

And they didn’t have an overview of what emergency measures had been activated across Andalusia, including where and how many cooling centers were opened. Nor does the national government collect data on deaths of people with disabilities due to extreme heat.

Heat already affects people’s mental health, and a lack of meaningful outreach can worsen feelings of isolation and abandonment at a time, coinciding with a long summer period where schools, and many shops, and offices close down.

In other words, it’s a lonely period for those unable to leave their homes. I worry about a 75-year-old woman I met who has a psychosocial disability and lives alone in Córdoba. “When it gets hot, I have anxiety and feel irritable,” she told me. “In those stages, you feel like you want to kill yourself.”

Fortunately, governments have begun to realize they need to boost efforts to fulfill their human rights obligations to protect populations at risk. The Andalusian government has made considerable efforts to improve its annual heat wave protection plans.

In January 2024, it told us that it would establish a system to monitor all heat-wave-related measures this summer and that it aims to work closely with civil society groups to better connect with communities, especially people at risk. These steps seem promising.

The national government is taking steps to better protect people at risk as well. At the height of last summer’s heat wave, Spain announced a new body, the Observatory on Climate Change and Health, created to develop strategies to help protect people from climate disasters, such as heat waves, through better warning systems, strengthening health systems, and improving awareness across society.

How these activities will be carried out and whether they lead to better protection for the people at risk remains to be seen. It is increasingly clear, however, that people should not be left alone to deal with the climate crisis and that governments need to do their part to ensure their protection. This is certainly the case for Andalusia, and the rest of Spain, as we head into another hot, potentially record-breaking summer.

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service