A welcome step towards disability-inclusive disaster risk management

Fred Smith, December 2015
A man stands beside a corrugated iron dwelling.

“Hazards only become ‘disasters’ for certain people: the poorest are often the most vulnerable”

This week I’ve been attending the Dhaka Conference on Disability and Disaster Risk Management.

I’m here with colleagues from our Bangladesh team to present research in a disability inclusive disaster preparedness programme we implemented in Satkhira, a district in the south west corner of Bangladesh that forms part of the Sunderbans – the largest mangrove forest in the world – and is home to the Royal Bengal tigers. Unfortunately this region also hosts regular floods, waterlogging, cyclones and other environmental hazards.

Why is this important?

Bangladesh is one of the most hazard-affected countries in the world, and this is expected to increase with the impacts of climate change. However, there is currently a lack of disability-inclusive practice in all stages of disaster management. This is a critical issue as the impacts of disasters are socially constructed. Hazards only become ‘disasters’ for certain people: the poorest people in a community are often the most vulnerable to the impacts while people with more resources tend to be less affected. This is particularly relevant for people with disabilities: poverty and disability are inextricably linked due to the number of barriers people with disabilities can face accessing education, health care and employment.

The first of its kind

For the first time, the government of Bangladesh has recognised the importance of disability as a cross-cutting issue and is ensuring disaster risk management is inclusive. Not one but three ministries – for Disaster Management and Relief; Women and Children Affairs; and Social Welfare – have organised the conference in partnership with national Disabled People’s Organisations.

The conference is also the first of its kind – dedicated to how disability and disasters are interrelated. The main objective was to share ideas for how to implement the Sendai Framework in an inclusive way. This is the global framework for disaster risk reduction for the next 15 years, agreed in March. It set the tone for a more inclusive post-2015 development agenda with a people-centred outcome document. This has been followed by the three other major development processes that have been agreed this year: Financing for Development, the Sustainable Development Goals and recent COP 21 Climate conference.

Inclusive integrated approaches

All of this work is interconnected. Disaster planning that doesn’t consider climate change or long term development won’t be effective: rebuilding houses with unsustainable materials will just mean they are washed away with the next flood. Integrated approaches to these big development challenges are required. What the Dhaka conference and subsequent Declaration – which calls on all nations to take specific actions – recognise is that disability-inclusive integrated approaches are essential.

This is why I’m proud to work on our campaign, which calls for people with disabilities to be a priority in international development. We know people with disabilities must be active participants and take leadership of the decisions that affect their lives, whether that’s how they will be supported to evacuate safely before a cyclone or where a water point is placed in their community.

It’s also why I was so proud of one presentation we did this week. It didn’t involve me (which meant no one was struggling to comprehend a monotone English accent); my colleague Asma interviewed three participants from our programme on the five factors identified above. Leading staff from the organising ministries attended, as they had heard a presentation we’d delivered earlier, and wanted to find out more. They sat and listened to what the people with disabilities were telling them; how they are frightened of going to cyclone shelters because of fears of sexual abuse; how challenging it is to access food and water during disasters; how early warning systems are not accessible; and how evacuation teams do not how to locate or support them.

This is the purpose of our work. Bringing people with disabilities and policymakers together, so the rights and views of people with disabilities are respected and inform the decisions that affect their lives.

This conference was also important as it focused on implementation, exactly what is required after the many mammoth negotiations this year! In 2016 we’ll continue working with people with disabilities so they can fight for their rights, and with development organisations to ensure people with disabilities are a priority in international development.

Find out more about our campaign

Download the full report from this research

By Fred Smith, Sightsavers Head of Policy

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