In 2018, Tropical Cyclone Gita hit Tonga — impacting approximately 80,000 people, or 80 percent of Tonga’s population — and caused widespread damage to infrastructure, housing, livelihoods, and disruptions to public services.
While difficult for many Tongans, persons living with disabilities were hit the hardest. With limited access to warnings and information about the storm, many were reluctant to evacuate because emergency shelters lacked facilities to cater to their needs such as ramps to use bathrooms or toilets. Situations like these not only compromised their immediate safety but also added unnecessary anxiety and stress.
Everyone is affected by the impacts of natural hazards, such as cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. But persons with disabilities tend to be particularly vulnerable due to a range of physical, communication, policy, and attitudinal barriers. In 2020, it was estimated that at least 1.5 million Pacific Islanders were living with some form of disability and prevalence of disability is expected to rise— which is why it is important that disaster risk management (DRM) interventions ensure the full participation and equal rights of persons with disabilities, and ensure risk reduction includes everyone.
The good news is that governments, community organizations, and households in the Pacific Islands are taking targeted actions to ensure that no one is left behind before, during, or after a disaster strikes. All Pacific countries are committed to international agreements and frameworks such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) and the Pacific Framework for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2016-2025). Local legislation and policies to ensure the safety and well-being of persons with disabilities are being enacted around the region. While implementation of those regulations can be challenging, there are practical ways to facilitate the meaningful participation of people with disabilities in DRM activities from community to national levels.
The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), with support from the Government of Australia, has been assisting those efforts by identifying gaps in the inclusion of persons with disabilities in national DRM processes and investment programs across the Pacific region. For example, in Kiribati, Marshall Islands, and Vanuatu, GFDRR is helping to identify practical actions to improve development outcomes by incorporating disability considerations such as ensuring universal accessibility in public buildings and infrastructure, for World Bank-funded resilience projects.
There are many ways to include persons with disabilities as active actors in the resilience agenda that are both scalable and replicable, such as through more inclusive emergency preparedness and response efforts, early warning systems, accessible evacuation centers, and building critical infrastructure that are essential for a functioning society. Throughout the process of planning, coordination, and implementation, it is critical that people with disabilities have adequate representation at the table where decisions are being made—“nothing about us, without us”. Below are four ways, identified through our work, to increase the resilience of persons with disabilities in the Pacific:
- Collect and share better-disaggregated data. Reliable, current disability data that can be accessed and shared is critical for developing disability-inclusive DRM policy and operational planning.
- Connect disability inclusion policies and legislation with DRM programs and policies. Disability policies in Pacific countries should articulate provisions around care and protection of rights of persons with disabilities in the context of a disaster and/or emergency preparedness and response.
- Adapt early warning systems to be more responsive to people’s specific needs. Persons with disabilities are a heterogeneous group that needs different methods of communicating disaster information, warnings, and alerts to be able to evacuate and respond to emergencies in a timely manner.
- Support national systems and networks. Government systems such as planning and coordination mechanisms for emergency preparedness and response require further support. Pacific countries also have organizations of people with disabilities and a range of organizations that support people with various disabilities and from diverse backgrounds, which can be further strengthened.
Beyond the Pacific, GFDRR has been working with other partners to understand what opportunities exist to support persons with disabilities in DRM programs globally and in other regions. For example, in the Caribbean, knowledge exchanges and learning events have been promoted across the region. By including persons living with a range of disabilities in the design and implementation of disaster risk reduction and adaptation efforts, they are equipped to make decisions and take actions in their own best interests.