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ABC: NT Aboriginal groups call for moratorium on electricity disconnections in COVID-hit communities

Frontline Aboriginal organisations working in remote Northern Territory communities have called for an immediate moratorium on electricity disconnections in households subject to COVID-19 isolation rules. 

The organisations have raised concern that families undergoing mandatory isolation in overcrowded homes have experienced frequent power disconnections, cutting off cooling and refrigeration while daily temperatures have averaged above 35 degrees Celsius and are forecast to rise. 

Power in remote Northern Territory communities operates on a pre-paid meter system, where residents purchase credit at local stores, and household power is cut when the credit runs out. 

Houses in these communities had a one-in-three chance of power disconnecting on very hot or very cold days, according to a study led by the Australian National University and published in Nature Energy journal last year. 

According to the researchers, extreme temperatures and poorly designed houses with ineffective circulation and insulation drove up power use, leading to remote Indigenous households having the highest rates of energy insecurity and power disconnection of any population in the world.

Mark Guyula stands in a red and black collared shirt in front of the sea.
Yingiya Mark Guyula, says has been contacted by families in isolation who were without power for more than 24 hours. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Eight organisations, including power, health and legal service providers, with Independent member for Mulka, Yingiya Mark Guyula, sent a letter to Chief Minister Michael Gunner and senior NT government officials on Wednesday, criticising the government for its approach to energy security in its COVID-19 response. 

The letter stated that residents often had no purchasing power credit when in lockdown. As a result, many of the signatory organisations had redirected funds from other frontline services to pay for emergency power credit.

They said this had been "extremely difficult" due to health and travel restrictions in remote communities.

Mr Guyula said people in his electorate in north-east Arnhem Land who had COVID-19 symptoms were hesitant to get tested because of the condition of their homes.

"They do not want their families locked in overcrowded houses without ongoing support for food and power," he said. 

The signatories to the letter have asked for the immediate end to electricity disconnections to apply for the duration of isolation or lockdown orders and also rule out any debt accrual or recovery. 

'We need secure power'

According to Aboriginal organisation, Original Power, residents in remote NT communities spend between $70 and $150 per week per household on power cards. 

Andrew Johnson said the high cost of power was a big problem for him while he isolated at home with COVID positive family members in Lajamanu.

"Lots of people are moving around just to use the neighbour's power for cooking or to stay cool and it's spreading the virus more," he said. 

"The only way we can make it through this crisis is by staying isolated, and we need secure power to do that." 

An aerial view of the Northern Territory town of Borroloola.
Borroloola is located near the Gulf of Carpentaria area, on the McArthur River.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Borroloola community representative Gadrian Hoosan had the same concerns.

"Temperatures are very hot here, and households are overcrowded, so we are using a lot of power, and it's too much for families to afford," Mr Hoosan said.

"We are calling on the Chief Minister to act immediately and guarantee no electricity disconnections in our homes to support families to isolate and stay locked down safely."

Mr Gunner on Thursday wrote back to the organisations, and said government responses were "tailored to each community" and managed through a local emergency response. 

"Any concerns about an individual or household's welfare need to be raised through this local emergency response," he wrote. 

The Chief Minster also said the NT was "now living with COVID" and authorities would work with stakeholders to "ensure the specific needs of each community were adequately addressed".

Mr Gunner also said electricity retailer Jacana Energy was "working with stakeholders" to make sure "no customer remains disconnected" when impacted by a COVID-related health response.

Biosecurity zones 

COVID-19 biosecurity zones introduced by the federal government for remote Northern Territory communities are due to expire today.

It is not yet clear if the restrictions will be extended.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said impacted communities would be included in a decision made by the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, on whether to extend biosecurity measures in the Northern Territory. 

The spokesperson also said any decision would be informed by advice from the Chief Medical Officer and consultation with the Northern Territory Government, impacted Land Councils and the Aboriginal Health Community Controlled Sector.