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2022 Spanish Heatwave Disproportionately Affected People With Disabilities, Study Finds

CRISIS - Viability of Life on Earth by Denise Ramos Europe Jun 30th 20234 mins
2022 Spanish Heatwave Disproportionately Affected People With Disabilities, Study Finds

While people with disabilities suffer the most from heatwaves, they are also the ones with the least access to support, a new study by Human Rights Watch suggests.

Spanish residents with disabilities faced increased difficulties during heatwaves in 2022, mainly due to a lack in government guidance, a new study has revealed.

The report, carried out by Human Rights Watch (HRW), included interviews with 33 people with disabilities in cities across Spain’s southernmost region Andalusia, such as the capital Seville and Córdoba. 

Urban areas such as these are often subjected to what is known as the urban heat island effect, a phenomenon by which urban cores retain heat for a variety of reasons, creating, as the name suggests, a heat island effect.

Most of the interviewed subjects said they experienced negative effects on their physical health during last year’s record-breaking heatwaves, including brain fog, water retention, difficulty in breathing, low blood pressure, and loss of consciousness. 

Subsequently, their mental health was also adversely affected. With extreme heat, people with disabilities are forced to stay home due to health concerns, amplifying feelings of loneliness and deprivation. A poor mental state aided by medication could make it difficult for their bodies to keep cool, further worsening their overall health.

According to online monitoring system for mortality rates MoMo, more than 98% of around 4,600 heat-related deaths in Spain during the 2022 heatwaves were people aged 65 and older. It is important to note here that more than half of Spain’s registered disabled community is aged 65 and older. Thus, the HRW report suggests that many of the heat-related fatalities could have been people with disabilities.

Despite the persisting issue, the government has not been able to properly address the problems faced by people with disabilities. In August 2022, Andalusia’s authorities claimed that they had reached out to 12,000 people to assess their safety during the heatwaves. However, according to Human Rights Watch’s interviewees, none of them has been contacted by the authorities.

While the study focuses exclusively on heatwave impacts in Spain, the findings can be extended to Europe as a whole, as several other European countries are experiencing prolonged heatwaves and record-breaking temperatures.

According to a 2023 World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report, Europe has warmed at a rate that is twice as much as any other continent since the 1980s. Moreover, Europe’s temperatures in 2022 were about 2.3C higher than the pre-industrial average. 

These heatwaves harvest global problems, including power shortages, inefficient water and energy transportation, and ice sheet melting.

According to the same report, European glaciers lost about 880 cubic kilometres (211 cubic miles) of ice between 1997 and 2022. The Alps’ glaciers alone experienced a record-breaking loss rate in 2022, with a 34-metre (111.5 feet) average fall in ice thickness.

People’s lives are also increasingly threatened by the severity of heatwaves. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of people exposed to heatwaves increased by around 125 million between 2000 and 2016. 

There is still a glimpse of hope in this grave situation, and it lies in the hands of the government. The steps necessary to improve the situation can be exemplified by assessing Andalusia’s inadequate response to last year’s heatwaves. 

Authors of the HRW report included some policy suggestions and steps that governments should take to address the situation and tackle the problem.

The first step is to always include people with disabilities in conversations about public health. While the 2022 Andalusian Heatwave Action Plan does determine disability as a “risk factor”, it does not discuss specific steps to alleviate problems related to disability, exacerbating feelings of neglect and misunderstanding among the community. Without proper inclusion, there is no way to properly address the disabled community’s needs.

As for their needs, the government should set up adequate facilities that allow the disabled community to easily seek shelter from the heat. Studies show that the efficacy of cooling centres depends on factors such as accessible infrastructure. In 2022, authorities in Seville and Córdoba admitted that their cooling centres were underutilised. 

It then becomes crucial to improve cooling centres’ accessibility, for example by building ramps and ample spaces for wheelchair users, handrails for people with mobility issues, and braille signs for the visually impaired.

The Andalusian Ministry of Health recognises that important information about heatwaves and precautions is inaccessible to the disabled community. The spread of information is indeed facilitated by the Internet and mass media. Nonetheless, people with disabilities are often excluded from these channels. Such crucial information and instructions should be delivered in braille, sign language, and easy-to-read formats to ensure that everyone in society understands heatwave precautions. 

You might also like: Urban Heat Island Effect: Cities Could Be 4C Warmer Than Rural Areas By 2100, Study Finds

Tagged: heatwaves Spain

About the Author

Denise Ramos

Denise is an undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong, majoring in Journalism and Marketing. She joined Earth.Org in June 2023 for a Summer Editorial Internship. She is passionate about leveraging effective communication to raise awareness of different social issues. She is interested in combatting environmental issues, particularly those involving the oceans and animals.

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