Opinion by Belyndar Maonia Rikimani
While the conversation on the impact of climate change globally and here in the Pacific tend to focus more on the vulnerabilities of Pacific communities in the events of slow onset and extreme events of the climate crisis, there has been very little attention given to listening to the men, women, girls and children living with disabilities in our communities.
People living with disabilities are very vulnerable even before a disaster hits or a climate rapid onset occurs. Therefore, governments, non-governmental organisations and other actors in this space need to recognise the specific needs of this ‘at risk’ population to ensure they are not forgotten or left behind before, during and after a disaster.
The United Nations defines vulnerable groups as “populations that live in poverty without access to safe housing, water, sanitation and nutrition and those who are stigmatized, discriminated against, marginalized by society and even criminalized in law, policy and practice. These populations may struggle to fulfil their human rights, including their rights to access health and social services. They live in environments of inequality where they are unable to thrive, feel safe and actively participate in all aspects of society.”
In times of a natural crisis, there is a higher risk that people living with disabilities are not only vulnerable to issues of violence or abandonment but are also faced with the difficulties to access basic needs and services like food, water, sanitation and health care services.
In Vanuatu, the government with its development partners have set up a partnership with the Society of People with Disability and Disabled Peoples Advocacy Association to work through these issues to reduce the barriers faced by people living with disabilities there. They’ve established a hub or one-stop centre where people living with disabilities can access information and resources that can empower them to participate fully in community life.
Stephanie Stephens who is the climate campaign manager at Save the Children Vanuatu said when people living with disabilities suffer from the impact of climate change, it increases their vulnerabilities and deprive them of their rights.
“People living with disabilities are one of the groups that are very vulnerable professionally, mentally, socially and physically adverse events in their communities. It’s very important that these groups of vulnerable people are prioritised in community settings to ensure their needs, health and safety are well looked after.
“When the weather becomes worse, people with disabilities are likely to move out from their homes and relocate to evacuation centres or a home of a relative, depriving them of their privacy. People living with disabilities, especially those that are using wheelchairs are denied basic needs like access to the nearest shop or a healthcare facility.
Naomi Tai and Melvina Voua, two passionate young women leading the office of People with Disability in the Solomon Islands identified with the challenges faced by people living with disabilities in neighbouring Vanuatu.
In the Solomon Islands, people with disabilities have faced heightened protection and barriers to inclusion and are likely to have specific and additional needs related to the context of disasters and climate change.
“The Mamana Water Ren Lau Community is located at the mouth of the Mataniko River, in Central Honiara and people living in that community are faced with severe coastal erosion due to sea level rise and flash flooding on rainy seasons. Many people residing in that community have lost their homes, have no access to clean water, safe environment and food security. People living with disabilities in that community have been very vulnerable to the changes posed by climate change.
“There is a high risk of forced displacement in some communities in Solomon Islands due to the intensity of the extreme weather changes such as cyclones, droughts and environmental degradation that have impacted the livelihood and survival of people living with disabilities, according to Tai and Voua.
There needs to be a thorough feasibility study on identifying the different types of impairments that people with disabilities need and include them in the country’s adaptation and mitigation plans. That conversation needs to start between government, NGOs and communities to raise the specific needs of vulnerable groups. The inclusive dialogue and consultation with people with disability and disability organisations and stakeholders needs to evolve into actions and policies that reflect our governments commitments not to leave anyone behind!
About the Author:
Belyndar Maonia Rikimani is a Climate Activist and a One Young World Ambassador from Solomon Islands. She is a Final Year Law student at the University of the South Pacific and is a member of the Pacific Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC).