Persons living with a disability represent 15% of the world’s population. These persons with disabilities are among the first victims of natural disasters. For example, during the tsunami in Japan on 11 March 2011, the mortality rate among the disabled registered with the government was double that of the rest of the population. How can we explain this vulnerability? How can we reduce it? Is the international community committed to tackling this issue?

© Brice Blondel / Handicap International, Népal, projet de Réduction des Risques de Catastrophes (RRC) inclusive.
© Brice Blondel / Handicap International, Népal, projet de Réduction des Risques de Catastrophes (RRC) inclusive.

Why are persons living with a disability among the first victims of natural disasters?

Disabled people are in fact among the groups considered as being more at risk of suffering negative effects from natural disasters, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, floods, droughts, cyclones, etc. Indeed, disabled people are often not reached on time by the early warning systems that alert the public, which contributes to their vulnerability. This was the case during the tsunami in 2011.

A first global survey conducted by the UN in 2103 of 5,450 people living with a disability in the face of disasters confirms this trend. The results show the difficulties experienced by disabled people and highlight the reasons for their vulnerability:

  •  Only 20% say that they are able to evacuate immediately without difficulty in the event of a sudden disaster, the rest could only do so with a certain degree of difficulty, and 6% would not be able to do so at all;
  • 71% of respondents do not have an individual preparedness plan for natural disasters;
  • Only 31% always have someone to help them to evacuate, whereas 13% have no one to help them;
  • Only 17% of respondents are aware of the their community’s disaster preparedness plan;
  • Only 14% are consulted during the preparation of these disaster preparedness plans.



How to reduce this vulnerability to disaster risks?

In order to make these most-at-risk groups less vulnerable, it is essential to include them in all natural disaster risk management policies and practices. More specifically, it involves ensuring that disabled people and their organizations are recognized as essential partners for designing, implementing and overseeing the policies that are defined, such as the International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction, which is currently being redefined (see below). They must contribute to the formulation and supervision of local, national, regional and international policies and plans in order to ensure that they are in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In its Article 11, this Convention mentions the right for disabled people to “the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters.

This requires a dual approach. On the one hand, it is necessary to support the capacity of local, national and international actors to include the most vulnerable in mitigation, prevention, and the preparation and programming of relief. In practical terms, this involves, for example, setting up early warning systems that are accessible to all, creating community shelters without barriers, defining contingency plans that take the needs of all into account.

On the other hand, it is necessary to support vulnerable groups in order to increase their resilience to disaster risks and climate risks. This will empower them and facilitate their active participation throughout the DRR process. For example, this involves specific training and awareness-raising activities on natural disasters and the measures that need to be taken to be better prepared, before, during and after the disaster, or the contingency plans that need to be built at individual and family level.

In the Indonesian province of Yogyakarta, six organizations have joined forces to defend a more inclusive disaster risk management. Ari Kuriniawan, a training officer in an NGO, has seen a change in practices in terms of disaster response: “When the Yogyakarta earthquake occurred in 2006, little attention was paid to disabled people. Five thousand people died and thousands of others were injured. During the eruption near the Merapi volcano in 2012, the emergency response was better suited to the needs of the vulnerable, including disabled people. (…) The shelters have now been equipped with access ramps, toilets accessible to disabled people have been installed. (…) These are small changes, but it means a lot to us.


Is the international community committed to tackling this issue?

Disaster risk reduction is an issue for which cooperation actors are currently highly mobilized, since the discussions over renewing the International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction will be concluded in Sendai, Japan, in 2015. This strategy aims to help communities increase their resilience to natural and technological risks, and to environmental disasters, as well as reduce the risks and losses related to the environment, and to human, economic and social activities. If the international community’s desire is to protect the population from disaster risks, during these discussions, greater attention must be paid to persons living with a disability.

Three core principles must guide them: the participation of disabled people, which is essential to ensure the relevance and sustainability of any development action; non-discrimination, which is related to the notion of equal opportunities; and finally, accessibility, to make the environment, transport, information and communication accessible to all.

By following these principles, is it not a good opportunity for all international cooperation actors to promote this “famous” resilience, rebound, but also prevent the onset of shocks, or better prepare for them?

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