If COP26 isn’t accessible, what about disaster relief?

Mark Carew

Following the news Karine Elharrar couldn't attend COP26 as the venue was inaccessible, Mark Carew tells us why it's time disaster relief was made more inclusive.

Two people in Bangladesh walking through flooding

I’m a Principal Researcher for Leonard Cheshire. Like many others, I’ve been prepping key messages on climate change in anticipation of the COP26 conference for months. I want to get its impact on disabled people, and the need for inclusion in any plans, on the agenda. I couldn’t have anticipated, however, that on the very first day of the conference, not only was it on the agenda, it was making worldwide news.

When Karine Elharrar was forced back to her hotel because no other entry was wheelchair accessible, it spotlighted the exact life-threatening issue disabled now face because of climate change. Accessibility is an afterthought, not a default. And when disasters like the floods in Germany and Hurricane Katrina hit, and disabled people can’t access life-saving support, time to get them to safety runs out. 
The available evidence suggests that emergency preparedness and planning, particularly for extreme weather events, is not a case of being ready for an ‘if’, but a ‘when’.

What's the current climate change situation

The World Meteorological Organisation estimates that, over the last 50 years, a climate or water related disaster has occurred somewhere in the world every day on average. Each event has caused an average of 116 deaths and $202million in damage.

This is sobering reading in light of the rise in extreme weather events like heatwaves, much of which is linked to climate change. It holds even more worrying implications for countries like Bangladesh, which are uniquely vulnerable to flooding and sea level rises.

This is why we’ve chosen to focus on disaster messaging in Bangladesh in our new report, funded by Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund. We wanted to find out just how accessible and inclusive communications around disasters were.

How can we keep everyone safe

It’s not a question of whether we plan for emergencies, but how we ensure all of the population is kept safe. Most emergency messaging plans fail to be disability and age inclusive because they don’t use the channels these populations use. This leaves large sections of communities uninformed and vulnerable.

In reviewing the existing literature and data, we asked a lot of questions. For one, we have to look at what makes emergency messaging effective. Is it the information conveyed that is most important, or do we need to focus on the urgency of the message itself, to drive people to take action to stay safe?

The current plans aren't inclusive

What we found was that existing approaches aren’t inclusive enough. As highlighted by our review, in Kurigram, there is no formal organisation involved in broadcasting flood alerts. One study identified in our review surveyed 100 households in the area. Two-thirds of them did not know where their local flood shelter was, despite Kurigram being especially flood-prone. It’s clear from this that crucial information isn’t reaching marginalised communities.

There has been work to boost disaster preparedness at a national level in Bangladesh since the Bhola Cyclone in 1970 – one of the deadliest and most devastating disasters in history. But that hasn’t translated into identifying whether messaging, alerts, and plans reach marginalised communities, including people with disabilities.

How can we change this

How we reverse this potential exclusion is a complex question because we cannot focus on one channel or medium. It’s just not as simple as that. Internet access varies too widely to rely on this as a medium, for example. And ignoring the networks that exist within a local community means missing out on a vital tool to reach those that centralised messaging, such as from a local authority, cannot.

Another vital factor relates to a phrase we already hear a lot in the UK: ‘nothing about us without us.’ Both people with disabilities and organisations for people with disabilities (OPDs) need to be involved in designing inclusive messaging if it’s to serve its purpose.

And, for all the data we gathered, the report uncovered the need for more detailed data on what communication channels (i.e. Radio, television, community networks) people use. Also how this can change depending on their age, location and whether they have a disability.

Our emergency message

We do know, though, that now is absolutely the time to be ensuring emergency messaging is inclusive and applying data to understanding how to keep marginalised populations safe from disasters. Otherwise, these populations will be all the more disproportionately affected.

Our emergency message is: The world needs to ensure it is keeping the most marginalised frontline communications safe from disasters - and this starts with inclusive disaster communication. The world won’t wait.

Our new report

Our research from Bangladesh highlights why disaster messaging needs to be inclusive, otherwise, disabled people will miss out on vital, life-saving information.

Download our report (PDF - 1.33MB)