AUSTRALIA'S most vulnerable people are at increased risk of injury and death because community organisations are struggling to cope with day-to-day operations let alone plan for extreme weather events, the country's peak social services group has warned.
The Australian Council of Social Service says many community organisations are likely to permanently collapse and be unable to provide services after extreme weather, leaving society's most disadvantaged, including the elderly, mentally ill and the homeless, ''at real and increased risk of death''.
The findings, from ACOSS's Climate Change and the Community Sector - Risks and Adaptations project, highlight the susceptibility of Australia's most vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, some of which are being experienced in the current heatwave.
ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie said the findings were ''extremely important and deeply concerning''.
While the international focus on the effects of climate change is often on the threat to poorer nations of more intense storms and harsher droughts, ''inequities in developed countries'' are usually overlooked, Ms Goldie said.
''We've got one in eight adults and one in six children living below the poverty line. It's well understood that for those people, they are at extreme risk of being entrenched in their poverty situation once these sorts of events occur because any of the resources they have get wiped out.''
The community groups typically rely heavily on volunteers and provide a range of vital services, including support for young mothers, childcare, welfare and aged care.
Asked how long they would need to make alternative arrangements if their buildings or premises became inaccessible, a quarter of the 600-plus respondents to the national survey said ''they would fail completely'', with a further 16 per cent saying they would need at least a month to restart. Just one in nine of the community groups said they could reopen within a day.
''It's always the low-income and socially disadvantaged who are disproportionately affected by extreme events,'' the chief executive of the Tasmanian Council of Social Service (TasCOSS), Tony Reidy, said.
Hobart smashed its highest temperature by a full degree on Friday, reaching 41.8 degrees, while the mercury hit 45 in Adelaide, its fourth highest since records began in 1887. More heat is on the way.
Mr Reidy said that while it was too early to tell what the full impact of this week's Dunalley bushfire east of Hobart would be, it was likely many of those affected would be low-income people who tend to move to remote rural areas where housing is more affordable.
Over the past two years, TasCOSS has already seen a 200 per cent increase in the number of people applying for assistance from emergency groups or charities for the first time. Mr Reidy said this ''will only be exacerbated'' by the fires and heat.
Episodes such as the current scorching heat added to the risks for people and organisations already battling with heavy demand, the executive director of the South Australian Council of Social Services (SACOSS), Ross Womersley, said.
''People who are elderly are much more likely to be vulnerable under these circumstances than younger, healthy adults,'' Mr Womersley said.
Those living with disabilities, particularly if requiring highly modulated heat conditions, are especially exposed. Also easily forgotten during heatwaves are those with mental health issues.
''The level of medication is based on the assumption people will be properly hydrated,'' Mr Womersley said. Periods of heat stress ''may throw that medication well out of kilter''.
The project, which received federal funding from the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, was originally scheduled to release its final report in March, but ACOSS is seeking approval to accelerate the release to meet the January 18 deadline for submissions to a current - and timely - federal Senate inquiry: Recent trends in and preparedness for extreme weather events.
Greens leader Senator Christine Milne, who led calls for the inquiry, hopes the submissions and subsequent public hearings will ''highlight the gaps'' in building greater resilience in both physical and social infrastructure. ''Who's going to pay for it and where's our plan to respond to it?'' she said. ''That's why we've got the inquiry.''
The Black Saturday bushfires and the floods in Queensland demonstrated that while top-down disaster response and recovery efforts play vital roles, local-level organisations are also critical, Ms Goldie said.
''When those events hit, [the latter] were much better prepared for knowing who had what skills, who had what resources, and knew how to work together in an emergency and for the longer term,'' she said. '
'We can do better in ensuring the human impact is lessened … before these events hit rather than having to learn hard lessons in hindsight.''
For now, though, most community groups - with the exception of the majors such as the Salvation Army and Anglicare - ''tend to just get by'', relying on short-term government contracts and whatever funds they can raise themselves, said Mr Reidy of TasCOSS.
''It's not just good planning but having the additional resources for coping with these events.''