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Where disability meets climate change

by Kate Ansell

5th December 2009

How will climate change affect disabled people? And is disability on the agenda at the latest round of global environmental talks which start on December 7? Kate Ansell investigates.
Flooded house, Bangladesh
On Monday 7 December, leaders from across the world will come together to discuss climate change. The conference, in Copenhagen, will aim to reach global agreement on ways of minimising the damage caused by our changing climate, and helping the world adapt to what’s already happened.

What emerges in Copenhagen over the coming fortnight has the potential to influence all of our lives, and quite dramatically. Subjects up for discussion include cutting carbon emissions worldwide and providing finance to the developing world which will help poorer countries cope with the effects of global warming.

At first glance, none of this seems to have much to do with disability: usually, rights campaigns centre on such things as access to education and employment, and don’t stray into questions of environmental decay. Indeed, many disabled people feel divorced from the green agenda which often focuses on encouraging us to be 'environmentally friendly’ by walking more, using cars less and taking public transport instead - not so easy for all of us to achieve.

But climate change can, and does, have a massive impact on disabled people. For those in countries where global warming is already a reality rather than a future threat, questions of how the needs of disabled people are catered for are unambiguous and urgent. Extreme and rising sea levels caused by global warming, flooding, cyclones, subsequent water and food shortages, the risk of being made homeless by violent weather conditions, these are very real situations for disabled people across the world.
Paul Cook - Tearfund
Paul Cook, Director of Advocacy at Tearfund, a UK-based relief and development agency working with developing countries, tells me: “Climate change hits the world’s poorest people the hardest.

“We work with the poorest and most vulnerable communities, and disabled people are part of that group.”

Mosharraf Hossain is at the forefront of the disability rights movement in Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries, and one of those most affected by climate change. He heads the Bangladeshi office of Action on Disability and Development, an agency which supports disability rights movements in developing countries.
Mosharraf Hossain Bangladesh
Mosharraf gives me figures which suggest disabled people make up a large subset of the country's poor and vulnerable. ON a crackly phone line from the capital Dhaka, he says: “There are an estimated fifteen million disabled people here ... around ten or eleven per cent of the total population. There is a strong link between disability and poverty. The health service here is poor. Only one in ten disabled people has access to school.”

He explains that without education, it is difficult for disabled people to access training or get jobs. Mosharraf describes what he calls a “systemic exclusion of disabled people, a circle of poverty.”

Paul Cook and others were keen to push home the fact that natural disasters often leave more people disabled than they kill.

It’s sobering to realise that the right of disabled people to vote in Bangladesh was only formalised last year; disabled voters are now registered separately to help them gain access to the process. In 2008, the government committed to reviewing existing disability legislation to bring it into line with the UN treaty on rights of disabled people.

"Things have progressed," Mosharraf says. The grassroots disability movement is very strong. To mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities, there will be 1700 disabled people at a rally here. We have a women's group, we have disabled people performing dramas. Dramas are used to spread awareness on many issues across the country."
Disabled people meeting in Bangladesh
Last year, the Bangladeshi government produced its own Climate Change Action Plan, setting out key areas to ensure the safety of citizens at times of natural disaster, and aiming to strengthen weather forecasting systems to better predict extreme conditions. But Mosharraf tells me that when it comes to discussing climate change: "There has not been much participation from disabled people.”

Problems experienced by disabled people on a day to day basis are magnified when there’s a natural disaster. ADD support advocacy projects to get the voice of disabled people heard, and cite the need to involve disabled people on every aspect of discussions about climate change to ensure any particular needs are catered for, from making cyclone shelters physically accessible to making sure policies and attitudes do not exclude disabled people. The accessibility of early warning systems, for instance, needs to be considered from the outset.

According to the International Disability and Development Consortium, a group of international disability organisations from twenty countries around the world, it’s not only crucial that the needs of disabled people are considered at times of climate change, it’s a fundamental human right.

In a statement to the UN human rights council in December last year, IDDC pointed out that the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities explicitly protects disabled people in situations of risk, including humanitarian emergencies or natural disasters, like those precipitated by climate change. The same convention also stresses the need for international co-operation and ensuring that any international development programmes are inclusive of and accessible to disabled people.

The IDDC is calling for those involved in the Copenhagen talks to ensure disability is absolutely part of the discussions, though whether that will happen remains to be seen.
Villagers in Kaya Benia, Peter Cayton - Tearfund
It is not, however, all bad news. Tearfund's Paul Cook has recently returned from South West Bangladesh, visiting some of the areas most affected by the changing climate.

"Sea levels are rising and seasons changing," he explains. "There are places where seven days worth of rain has fallen in one hour. Rising rivers and flooding have swallowed up the land [in some villages], forcing people to live on mud banks.

In one village, Kaya Benia, people have had to adapt to their changing environment, moving from farming to fishing as their lands were encroached by a rising river. Projects supported by Tearfund are helping people there protect themselves from further disaster, helping keep safe those who are most at risk, including disabled people, is a key part of this work.

Kaya Benia residents have set up a Disaster Risk Reduction Committee, and are making plans to keep its villagers safe at times of natural disaster. The plans absolutely take into account the needs of disabled people.

One of the most robust buildings in the area has been formally identified as a suitable cyclone shelter, and this is where people will travel in the event of an emergency.

“The committee has mapped out the village,” explains Paul, “and vulnerable families have been identified.” Now, an early warning system should ensure that if a cyclone comes, everyone can evacuate safely, with neighbours helping those who need assistance, including a mother of four young children whose husband is often away, and disabled villagers too.

Work like this demonstrates that local communities can come together and everybody can be protected when natural disasters strike.
Disabled Bangladeshi children, Simon de Trey- White, Bangladesh
Work like this demonstrates that local communities can come together and everybody can be protected when natural disasters strike.

It’s not easy, and it’s not free. The Tearfund looks forward to seeing adequate funding enabling more projects like the one in Kaya Benia to come into existence, protecting more of those most vulnerable to the effects of natural disaster.

All this may feel a long way away from a group of politicians in Copenhagen making policies, yet one of the key subjects up for discussions is just how much financial support the richest countries will give to the poorest over the coming years to help them cope with the affects of climate change. What is decided there over the coming weeks will have a direct impact on communities like Kaya Benia and the disability organisations supported by Action on Disability and Development. For those already affected by changing climates, this is not a theoretical discussion, but a real and pressing disability issue.

• If you're disabled and are concerned about the environment or have a story to tell us about how you recycle or any work you're doing in this area, drop us an email


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