Climate Change, Health

Exploring the Impact of the 2023 Heat Waves in Singapore on Different Income Groups

Felicia Teh | Sep 04, 2023


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In recent years, the global climate crisis has manifested itself in countless extreme weather events. This can be observed with the heat waves becoming more frequent and intense, making countries like Singapore reach record-high temperatures of 37℃ this year — the highest since 1983. Singapore is particularly susceptible to extreme heat events due to features like its urban environment and high population density.


Heat is spread out unevenly amongst countries with differing geographical locations and the unequal distribution is no exception towards those within a country.


Rising temperatures in Singapore

Temperatures cannot always reflect how warm the weather feels, especially in humid countries like Singapore where perspiring is slower, which reduces the ability of someone’s body to cool down. As a result, in the second quarter of 2023, it was estimated to have reached 43℃, 6℃ higher than the recorded temperature. An unusually intense prolonged heat wave and limited rainfall were just some of the many factors that contributed to the complaints of Singaporeans. 


A large contributor to the high temperatures is due to the extensive urbanisation Singapore has gone through, causing an increasing Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect. Infrastructure like high-rise buildings and roads — made of materials like concrete and asphalt — tend to trap heat during the day and release it at night, keeping urban areas on the island warmer than they can be. 


If we continue with our lives now as we have been, we are on the road to experiencing peak temperatures of 40℃ as early as 2045 and exceeding the healthy range for young men and women. This can lead to deteriorating health, increasing our vulnerability towards illnesses like heat stroke and heat-related deaths.


It is important to note that even though the aforementioned consequences can affect everyone, the effects of rising temperatures and heat waves on a population are not uniform. These consequences are felt differently by different socio-economic groups, frequently amplifying existing inequalities.


How are Singaporeans impacted by rising temperatures?

Those living within higher income brackets lead more comfortable lives with the options they have to avoid exposure to soaring temperatures. With just a flick of their fingers, air conditioning units can be switched on for those with white-collared jobs working in offices and in their homes. Their houses are also more likely to be well-insulated which creates a buffer between them and the scorching sun. 


How are low-income groups coping?

In Singapore, many low-income groups can usually only afford to stay in the more affordable housing options like HDB rental flats. Furthermore, these houses usually do not have air conditioning units. To cope with the warmth, they instead consume more water to relieve some heat through things like longer showers, which in turn increases their utility bills and places more financial pressure on them.


These groups with smaller financial capacity usually belong to the blue-collared workforce and due to working conditions, they are at higher risk of experiencing heat-related injuries. People with jobs like delivery riders and construction workers often work under the sun. It has also been found that heat stress can influence one’s ability to make rational decisions, deeming certain activities as less risky. This promotes risk-taking behaviour as one might skip steps which can lead to more workplace accidents, putting their lives in danger. 


What can be done?

The unequal impacts of heat waves on different income groups emphasise the need for comprehensive policies that address these disparities. 


In the short run, it might be best for the government to offer subsidised cooling programs to low-income groups that share the financial burden of purchasing cooling appliances. Another way would be to implement certain regulations like mandating breaks under the shade, providing breathable and ultraviolet-protective uniforms, and educating workers about heat stress in their native languages, something that was effectuated at a construction site in Woodlands earlier this year. 


Cooling centres can also be considered, where the public can easily access air conditioning to temporarily combat the negative health consequences of extremely hot weather, such as those brought on by heat waves. Concepts like this have been gaining traction over the years, especially in places in the United States and can possibly be adopted in Singapore. 


The designs of buildings and infrastructure play an important role in affecting the amount of heat trapped within cities and thus can influence the temperature. Here, urban planning plays a vital role as things like the latent heat of materials used for the construction of the buildings determine the urban heat island effect. Having more green spaces like parks and green architecture like Jewel Changi Airport where its domed facade is made out of special material to cut reliance on air-conditioning and cool the mall interior sustainably.


To combat the rising temperatures in Singapore at a larger scale, “Cooling Singapore” — a multi-disciplinary research project dedicated to developing solutions to address the urban heat challenge — has been in the making and will be completed by 2025. Tools will also be created to enable policymakers to determine the different mitigation strategies that could reduce urban heat and enhance outdoor thermal comfort at different scales throughout the country. 


At the individual scale, Singaporeans can play their part by reducing their reliance and consumption of air conditioning. This electricity usage is powered by the burning of fossil fuels which releases greenhouse gases that trap more heat in our atmosphere and raise global temperatures, further exacerbating global warming. By far, Singapore has one of the highest per-capita rates of air conditioning units in Southeast Asia which signifies how much more Singaporeans can contribute and make a difference.


The 2023 heat waves in Singapore have brought to light the complex link between climatic disasters and socioeconomic inequalities. Extreme heat has different effects on people of different economic levels, with lower-income individuals and families experiencing more severe challenges. Implementing policies that prioritise the well-being of all individuals, regardless of their financial circumstances, is imperative as the world continues to struggle with the repercussions of climate change.


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