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Disaster risk reduction must include people with disabilities

By Abigail Ewan, on 11 December 2023

photograph of two people sitting on the porch of a damaged house. Pieces of rubble and materials in the garden in the foreground.
Persons with sight impairment sits outside his house with his family member in Sindhupalchok. Their house was damaged by the 2015 Ghorka earthquake in Nepal in 2015.

The 3rd of December 2023 was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and this year the theme was to “Unite in action to rescue and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for, with and by persons with disabilities”. Twenty- five of these targets relate to disaster risk reduction and people with disabilities are estimated to make up 16% of the global population with 80% of these people living in low- and middle-income countries. This places the inclusion and reduction of risk for people with disabilities as a critically important component to achieving the SDGs. People with disabilities are amongst the most at risk from the impacts of extreme events, including those associated with climate change and may face additional challenges in being recognised and included in community responses, by emergency organisations and gaining access to available aid. Extreme events can also increase and exacerbate existing disabilities which can result from physical impairment, the psychological impacts of disaster exposure and the inability to access services. Responses that fail to consider and include people with disabilities therefore fail to meet the global mandates to ‘leave no one behind’.

Extreme events can expose the pre-existing inequalities, disagreements and tensions in the way societies, communities, and individuals manage their lives, cope with and respond to adversity. This reveals the coping strategies and behaviours of vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities. This can reveal the gaps in policy and response and highlight the dominance of certain knowledge regimes that shape responses and promote either inclusion or exclusion. The responses for people with disabilities during the context of crisis tend to be fragmented and largely approached by specialised disability organisations. The reality is most disaster practitioners are unlikely to have engaged with disability while specialists in disability are unlikely to have engaged with response and recovery.  This can leave social biases and false assumptions of disability unchallenged and in some cases reproduced through intervention which can result in unintentional exclusion or marginalisation, while the voices and knowledge of people with disabilities remains largely in the shadows.

The vulnerabilities and challenges of people with disabilities in the context of extreme events have been discussed for the preceding two decades but a more recent shift in thinking advocates for the role that people with disabilities can play as active contributors and leaders in risk and resilience work.  Despite this, people with disabilities are still highly underrepresented and are little engaged in the planning and design of resilience and policy work. The 2023 UNDRR report on disability inclusion in disasters found that there has been limited progress in disability inclusion in the last ten years, with no significant differences across all the 132 countries included in the report. It is not uncommon to hear anecdotal observations and statements such as ‘this population doesn’t know what it needs’ or ‘it costs too much to include them’. This has left both research and initiatives for people with disabilities tending to be approached as a specialised field, with disability organisations often left filling in the gaps in support left by mainstream disaster organisations and response. The consideration and engagement of people with disabilities and their local advocacy organisations in preparedness activities remains even more limited.

Though generally considered as separate specialist fields the historical roots and objectives of ‘disaster studies’ and ‘disability studies’ are perhaps more cohesive than one might initially imagine. Disaster risk reduction lenses explicitly identify social understandings, behaviours, constraining social conditions and capacities as determinants of exposure, risk and loss. This is comparable to that of critical disability studies which aims to improve the theory and actualisation of inclusion and equality for people with disabilities. These approaches seek to recognise inequality, constraining social conditions and capacities and they both reflect a wider political turn in exposing oppression and discrimination. Fundamentally, they are sociological problems which can be understood by their socially produced nature and require interdisciplinary solutions. There is a pressing need for new methods and approaches that provide locally led solutions as increasing the policy provisions and guidelines that advocate for inclusion seem to have done little to swing the status quo. As Priestly and Hemmingway professed almost two decades ago ‘Just as disability is not the inevitable consequence of physical or cognitive impairment, disaster is not the inevitable consequence of natural hazard’.


Abigail Ewen is a PhD Candidate from the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction exploring identity and disability in times of crisis in Nepal. 


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How not to prepare for earthquakes: lessons from history

By Dan Haines, on 16 August 2023

Two devastating earthquakes hit India, Pakistan and Nepal in the 1930s. Can we learn anything from history which will help reduce disaster risk today?

The takeaway: colonial officials kept improvising their response to major earthquakes instead of preparing for future events or building resilience. After independence India, like many other countries, remained focused on response and rehabilitation. Despite legislative and policy changes since the 2000s, more can be done to mainstream disaster risk reduction. Several South Asian organisations are leading the way on this including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. We should support their work.


Map of the Bihar and Quetta earthquakes, indicating approximate locations of most intense damage in British India. Reproduced under a CC-BY license from Haines, D. (2023), Recovering the status quo: tipping points and earthquake aftermaths in colonial India. Disasters. 

The earthquakes struck in 1934 and 1935, when India and today’s Pakistan were still colonised by the UK. The colonial state reacted by organising search and rescue and calling for public donations to relief funds for survivors. It rebuilt roads, railways and telegraph lines.

South Asians mounted their own responses, which both supported and challenged the state’s. By the 1930s the Indian National Congress and a host of other organisations had generated a well-organised mass movement that opposed British rule.

Nationalists started their own relief fund after the 1934 earthquake in Bihar, North India. Colonial officials cooperated with them despite political differences and the worry that nationalists would gain greater public support by doing highly visible relief work. Many other civil society organisations which had less antagonistic relationships with the state also helped survivors.

After the 1935 earthquake at Quetta, Balochistan (now in Pakistan) the colonial government banned nationalists and other volunteers from even travelling to the ruined city. Instead they evacuated 30,000 people – almost the entire civilian population – by rail. Survivors were sent to refugee camps or their ‘home districts’ in Punjab and Sindh.

Nationalists protested against the travel ban and criticised the colonial army’s search and rescue operations. In response the state used repressive legislation to fine newspapers for ‘sowing dissent’.

Nervous of the challenge that nationalists posed to their legitimacy as rulers, British officials kept politics at the forefront of their response to earthquakes. The army worried that ‘the desire to make political capital’ motivated Indians who applied for permission to go to Quetta after the earthquake there. Even in Bihar officials focused on maintaining law and order, making a show of protecting state assets and private property against suspected ‘looters’.

Let’s look beyond politics. The colonial state lacked coherent policies on earthquake management. Search and rescue, relief, and reconstruction efforts were all ad hoc.

The government improvised every time it faced a big earthquake, even though it had had policy frameworks for managing frequent famines and recurrent floods since the nineteenth century: not just in the 1930s, but also after earlier quakes in the 1890s-1900s.

Sound familiar? After independence, India inherited colonial bureaucratic structures. For decades it continued focusing on emergency response and rehabilitation for survivors. That came at the cost of preparing and funding people, institutions and physical infrastructure for future crises.

The Government of India’s own Task Force reported in 2013 that response capacity was good. But major legislative and policy changes of the early 2000s needed better on-the-ground enactment to make holistic risk reduction really effective. State and district level disaster management authorities needed professionalisation and more resources.

The National Disaster Management Plan (2016, revised 2019) still speaks of the need to mainstream disaster risk reduction across sectors and departments.

So – the colonial state’s strengths in response have carried forwards through time, but so has its tendency to improvise during emergencies rather than prepare effectively for the future.

A recent assessment by Indian and UK researchers found that district-level disaster management is still stuck in responsive mode, though with improvements in efficiency.

Many NGOs in South Asia are proactively building resilience and rightly advocating for preparedness. Including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. These organisations are helping regional governments to improve existing approaches and correct colonial missteps.

My lesson from history? We should continue to support their work.

Read my article, just published in Disasters, to learn more about the history and politics of earthquake response in colonial South Asia. No paywall!


Daniel Haines is lecturer in disaster and crisis response at UCL IRDR. He researches historical hazards, dam-building and international river water disputes in South Asia. He tweets at @DanielHaines1.


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The challenges that Covid-19 has brought to the newly elected women leaders in Nepal

By Punam K Yadav, on 22 June 2020

Co-authors: Pallavi Payal, Independent Researcher, Nepal and Punam Yadav, IRDR Centre for Gender and Disaster, UCL

Amidst this global pandemic and the initial chaos, there is an increasing attention to examine the different impacts of Covid-19, including the gendered impacts. On June 5th, 2020, the IRDR Centre for Gender and Disaster co-hosted a webinar with Pallavi Payal, an independent researcher from Nepal, which aimed to explore the lived experiences of women political leaders in Nepal in the time of Covid-19. It is becoming more evident that countries with women in leadership are doing much better, compared to those with men as heads of the state, especially in terms of managing the global pandemic and minimising the risks to people. The aim here is not to compare Nepal with New Zealand or Finland but to explore the contributions of women leaders at the local level during this pandemic.

Nepal has progressed significantly in recent years in terms of increasing women’s participation in politics. Currently numbers of women at the local government have been instrumental in managing the current crisis, despite many constraints, from quarantine management to the management of migrant returnees from India and abroad. Province 2 in particular is one of the hardest hits due to its open border with India, which has added additional challenges and responsibilities to the local and the provincial governments.

In situations like this, leaders and service providers are often labelled as ‘heroes’, if they are managing well or demonised, if they aren’t. However, what gets missed in this binary between the good and the bad leadership is the challenges that these political leaders face, both at home and at work in the times of crisis, such as Covid-19. Therefore, we wanted to have this conversation with women leaders from the local and the provincial governments. Therefore, we invited seven speakers to share their experiences. However, one could not join due to internet issues in her rural municipality. Out of the six speakers, who included Deputy Mayors and Provincial Assembly members, five of them were women and one was a male Provincial Assembly member. The aim of inviting a male politician was to understand how women’s challenges were perceived by their male colleagues as well as to help build support for them. The number of views on Facebook has reached over 2.9K, which suggests a lot of interest on the topic.

Due to the constitutional provision of a mandatory quota for women in Nepal, their participation in politics has increased to 41% in the local government. The majority of them, however, had no previous training in politics. Therefore, it has been a steep learning curve for many of them. It was only a little more than two years since their time in the office, when they were still trying to understand their roles and responsibilities, the country was struck by the current pandemic.

Nepal went into lockdown on the 24th of March 2020 with immediate effect, which created a lot of chaos and fear among people. Its capital city, Kathmandu, has a huge migrant population. As many of them thought that rural areas are safer than staying in the city, due to the lack of knowledge when the pandemic started, they made their journey back home, mostly on foot. Stories of people, including pregnant women and children, making their journey on foot for hundreds of miles were heart-breaking. Amidst this, migrant workers from various parts of the world, including India were coming home. Province 2 was also receiving a large number of returnees. The lack of planning from the government across all levels meant chaos for the local leaders without the means to support. Therefore, they started doing what they could in their own capacity. Although the local leaders are dealing with a number of challenges, women representatives had to face additional challenges due to their gender roles, some of which we aim to outline in this blog.

Dual Responsibilities

Women changed subject position from their previous roles to now as leaders. However, people’s perception about their gender roles has not changed. Women leaders at the webinar said that having to manage both home and work has been a challenge. They said, since the local government is the closest authority to the people, it is bound to have more responsibilities and challenges. Women leaders have suffered the burden of dual responsibilities. Their responsibilities at home have increased because of everyone staying at home, which meant more cooking, cleaning and caretaking. Likewise, workload has increased at work due to the pandemic. Ms Salma Khatoon, the Deputy Mayor of Pokhariya Municipality, shared her fear of contracting the virus and giving it to her family due to the nature of her work. She said she has a young child. However, she has been going out to monitor the quarantine facilities. All the migrant returnees and those who have tested positive are put into government-run quarantine facilities that have been poorly managed and overcrowded. Going to these places without any PPE means high risk of contracting the virus. She said she is scared of contracting the virus from the quarantine facilities and brining it home. Another speaker, Ms. Sadhana Jha, the Deputy Mayor of Rajbiraj Municipality also shared similar experiences.

Provincial Assembly member, Manish Suman said that while the male representatives have challenges too, one cannot ignore that women have additional challenges due to their responsibilities at home. They don’t get concession in their household responsibilities even though they have the same responsibilities as male representatives.

Work of Judicial Committee affected

One of the main responsibilities of the deputy mayor is leading the Judicial Committee, which involves dealing with social issues in their constituencies. However, the Judicial Committee has been badly affected by Covid-19. Evidence suggests increase in domestic violence. However, the Deputy mayor can’t meet the victims. They are still trying to support people. Salma Khatoon said she has been handling cases over the phone. Sometimes she has to meet in person. Even though she advises people to come in a small group, sometimes 20 people turn up, which increases the risks.

In addition to similar challenges faced by local representatives, Sadhana Jha added that not everything is possible via phone or internet because access to internet is difficult in rural areas. The increased responsibilities, due to this global pandemic, have exposed the local representatives to a higher risk. Provincial Assembly member, Manju Yadav, said that people in the villages are still not aware about physical distancing or even Covid-19. Manish Suman added that the idea of physical distancing or even washing hands so regularly is usually taken negatively in the villages and there is a chance of offending people if you tell them to do so.

Men in quarantine, women suffer at home

The local representatives pointed out that there are more men in quarantine but there are also women with their breastfeeding babies. Women representatives have been very active in supporting these women. In a male dominated society like Nepal where men are the breadwinners and women are the caretakers, when men are quarantined, all responsibilities fall on women’s shoulders. Deputy Mayor of Gaur, Kiran Thakur, said women come with their concerns to the women representatives. Women who have their relatives stuck at the border request the women representatives to help. As women representatives, Thakur feels that she should listen to their concerns and help them. However, the lack of resources means a lot of stress for her. Despite the challenges, women representatives said they are doing what they can to support women and advocating with their colleagues, Provincial and Federal governments for more support for women.

Relief Distribution and Women’s need

The women leaders also pointed out that the relief packages are handled by the Mayors and the Ward Chairpersons, who are mostly men, but the needs of women are not considered. Therefore, women come to them asking for help. They also said that women representatives are not consulted or informed before making any decisions on relief distribution. Nonetheless, they have to support people in their constituencies. Salma Khatoon said long before the directives from the Federal government, she suggested that the local government should provide nutritious food packages to pregnant women. However, her municipality ignored her proposal. She said the culture of ignoring and excluding women representatives has continued but they are navigating their own ways to fight against the exclusion.

All the panellists said that one of the main challenges to manage the current crisis is the lack of data. They said they don’t know how many people have entered Nepal via open border, which makes it difficult to manage the spread of the virus.  The panellists also raised other challenges, such as the lack of enough financial support from the federal government and the lack of coordination between the governments. They also said NGOs working in the region should divert their funding to support the people impacted by Covid-19.

Although Covid-19 has brought a lot of challenges to the women leaders at the local level, they think that this pandemic has also been an opportunity to work closely with the people in their constituencies. They have had the opportunity to prove themselves through their work, which has helped build trust with the local people. They have also learned to use Zoom. They have access to the outside world through Zoom and the outside world also has to them.

This webinar was livestreamed via Facebook. Please click here.