Dhaka, disability and disaster risk reduction

As I sit here amidst the honking of horns of the Dhaka rush hour, I take the chance to reflect on some of what I’ve seen over the last few days…

Sandwiched between the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is a disaster-prone land. Glacial and rain-induced flooding, cyclones and earthquakes are some of the hazards that it’s exposed to, so maybe it’s no surprise that the country is taking a leading role on the global disaster risk reduction stage. Specifically, the Dhaka Declaration, adopted last week at the Dhaka Conference on Disability and Disaster, is a two-year plan with strategic action points that will help shape governments’ Disaster Risk Management (DRM) policy in line with the Sendai Framework.

But enough jargon – what does all this mean in practice?

After the conference, I had the good fortune to escape the motorised jam of the capital city and visit some project work being done by our partner Centre for Disability in Development with Gana Unnayan Kendra in Gaibandha, in the north of the country.

yellow fields

Mustard fields in winter (dry season)

Deceptively tranquil, with fields of bright yellow mustard and rice paddies at all stages of growth (apparently the fertile ground can provide up to four harvests per year), this region is often affected by severe flooding. To avoid significant loss of their harvests, livestock and indeed their own lives, the local people need to be prepared.

The measures that are being taken are impressive, providing a seamless framework that starts at the local communities and links with government bodies. They reflect the ‘people-centred’ approach called for by Sendai, but also, in line with the Dhaka Declaration, they revolve around the inclusion of persons with disabilities in leadership roles, and have had some stunning results so far.

From exclusion to respect

The highlight for me was probably meeting what is known as the ‘Apex’ body, a group of disability leaders from local self-help groups who come together (I think they said bi-weekly) to plan their advocacy towards inclusion.

Led by Kazol Rekha, some of their greatest successes to date include:

  • increasing access to disability allowance by influencing the ‘open budget’ procedure (this action also allowed other more marginalised people to participate, proof if it is needed of the value of disability inclusion to the wider community)
  • creating an increase in the provision of assistive devices (including mobility tricycles and white canes)
  • and, on a practical level, having the local social services office moved from the (inaccessible) second floor to the ground floor
A young woman wearing traditional Bengali dress

Shirin – “I work to make sure other children do not miss their schooling as I did”

Shirin, one of the many female members of the group, has a learning disability and had very limited opportunity to attend school, but captured the mood of the moment perfectly:

“I was excluded, people did not give me respect; but now they are curious and want to know where I’m going and what I’m doing. I work to make sure other children do not miss their schooling as I did”.

Badsha Mia, another member of the group said “​I cannot imagine the changes over last two months: trainings, meetings… when people stop to talk they talk with us first; previously I felt limited as someone with a disability, but now no longer.”

So how does this link to DRR for all?

People, including a wheelchair user, seated cross-legged in a group in a public event

Kazol Rekha (in red) leading disaster management discussions during mock drill event. Kazol is also receiving training, to allow her to support people to learn their legal rights.

These people are not only personally empowered, but are positively affecting their community approach to resilience. We met the sub-district executive officer, who – with sincerity and a real understanding of inclusion – opined that “good human society brings marginalised people into the mainstream”, while highlighting the need for data on disability and access in infrastructure.

We attended a ‘mock drill’ organised by a school. This theatrical event drew hundreds of local people and depicted the process of community preparedness and response to flooding.

Early warning messages were given in various formats (ensuring they can be seen, heard, understood by all) and similarly, persons with disabilities, women and older people – often forgotten – were active throughout the decision-making and evacuation procedures.

It was impressive to see, and what sticks in the mind is that children (including children with disabilities) were centre-stage, providing invaluable foundations for future resilience.

The ‘last mile’

A man holding a red flag

A Ward Disaster Management Committee member explains their accessible early warning system

Back to real life, we met with the Union (Council) and Ward (more local level) Disaster Management Committees. These meetings were brief but powerful. The Apex body of persons with disabilities have representation with strong influence here, showing how the last mile between government and community can be covered.

This ‘last mile’ concept is easily exemplified by the community planning and preparing their own (accessible) early warning system, which includes coloured flags and audible messages.

And it was clear to us that the other committee members appreciate the value of inclusion – the secretary of the Union committee chairperson closed by saying that she is “waiting for the day when someone like Kazol is in her position“.

The way forward from Sendai

Schoolchildren (including wheelchair user)

Children learning about inclusive DRR during mock drill

There was much more, including visits to examples of income generating activities and accessible flood-prone housing, but the final message that is worth sharing, which was echoed by several of the groups we met, is that they know their work is changing their world but they want it to change THE world.

Following their example and implementing the Sendai Framework using government-endorsed papers like the Dhaka Declaration will do just this.

 

Dhaka Declaration – Disability-inclusive Sendai implementation