08 November 2006

New Zealand's Cult of Cold

Yesterday, the Parliamentary Commissioner of the Environment published its latest report 'Healthy, Wealthy and Wise', claiming that up to one third of New Zealand's homes, housing more than 1 million people, are cold, damp, causing sickness and keeping people in poverty. The report call s on government to take radical action.

This reminds me of a report I wrote at the end of July this year. It is reproduced below:

(The temperature measured in our bedroom, on 28 Jul at 7.57am: 6.5 degrees!)

It is not that the winter is especially cold in New Zealand. But it is a rather nasty experience! More so since we are experiencing one of the coldest winters for a longtime this year. Where we come from, the winter is much colder than here, but so much easier to experience ... Residential housing elsewhere is nice, warm and cosy – but not so in New Zealand. Buildings have wafer thin walls, no double glazing and construction that seems to be designed to let as much heat escape as possible.

In New Zealand, many people worship a cult of cold. One can see people walking around in t-shirts in the middle of the winter. With 5 degrees Celsius, many children go to school in shorts. The other day, a frosty morning, an 11 year old even boarded the bus with bare feet.

According to the MetService, this year is the coldest since 1972, and some people told me that they didn't remember anything as cold as that since 1951 when they moved here. This chill highlights some uncomfortable facts: cold homes may be killing hundreds of people each year. A staggering 500 more people over 80 die in July than in February, and death from respiratory disease in children is three times more likely to occur in July than January. Compare this with the country's road toll of 366 for the past year. Also, compare this to colder countries like Sweden and Russia, where the jump in deaths during winter is much less severe.

The average temperature in New Zealand homes lies just below the point the World Health Organisation warns can threaten health (16 degrees). The recommendation is that homes be heated to 18 degrees. Most New Zealanders put up with such conditions without complaints. They seem to consider insulating and heating their homes a waste of money. Never mind the consequences. This is an aspect of local culture I don't think we ever will adapt to!

We, for our part, have huge electricity bills. Even though we only heat our daughter's room, and sometimes put on an electrical oil column heater beside the breakfast table, as eating breakfast there with 10 degrees is neither enjoyable or acceptable. The only fixed installed heating in the building is a logburner in the kitchen. Burning enough wood, it will heat the kitchen and the dining area nicely, but not the rest of the house. We have abandoned the master bedroom during the winter, as we regularly measure 5 or 6 degrees there at the end of the night. Who wants to get up in the morning in such freezing cold conditions?

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