Accelerating change through disability inclusive water and climate action

By Shreya Gyawali

Disability inclusion is an international development priority. To ‘leave no one behind’ lies at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aiming to ensure peace, prosperity, and justice for all.

The 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report reveals a significant deviation from the 2030 target for SDGs. Out of the 36 indicators assessed across 17 goals, only five are close to target. Significant deterioration has been noted for eight indicators including food security and economic growth. Twelve indicators including universal safe drinking water, sanitation, poverty and education show limited to no progress. The rest have progressed fairly but need acceleration. This disheartening trend poses a critical question: what are the implications for historically marginalised groups, especially persons with disabilities?

In the post COVID-19 era with increasing impacts of climate change and global conflicts heavily stagnating the progress of SDGs, persons with disabilities are furthest behind, even in accessing the most basic human necessity like water. Achieving SDG6 – ‘availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’ is estimated to require a sixfold progress for drinking water, fivefold for sanitation and threefold for hygiene. For persons with disabilities, who are more likely to experience poverty, stigma, discrimination and have lower levels of education and employment, this progress will have to be substantially greater.

Water is an enabler for inclusion and prosperity. It plays an important role in realising other human rights. As we mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3, and with the UN Climate Change Conference in full swing this week, here are my five key reflections from the sector to guide us towards more inclusive water and climate action.

The crisis of water is universal, but the impacts are not

Water insecurity manifests uniquely across contexts, where the ability to adapt and mitigate risks varies significantly. This challenge extends beyond the confines of engineering and technical solutions as water management is fundamentally a social and political domain. Factors such as age, gender, race, disability, religion, place of origin, and socio-economic status intersect to influence power dynamics within communities determining access to water. The kind of disability experienced, which may be permanent, temporary, by birth or developed later, visible, and invisible determines people’s lived experiences and access to basics such as water.

The intersection of disability, gender and age contribute to increased incidents of discrimination and stigmatisation. Older women with disabilities experience discrimination and human rights violations due to the intersection of ageism and ableism. The kind of disability experienced by a woman can impact her access to water and sanitation. A discussion paper by WaterAid and CBM, reflecting on the application of integrated gender and disability advisory support to rights-based WASH programs in Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea, highlights that women with less severe disabilities often face challenges in accessing WASH services. This is because they are still expected to fulfill gender-related duties.

The conversation needs to start early

If the intent is to achieve SDG 6 for all, Gender, Disability and Social Inclusion cannot be an afterthought. People with disabilities live in every community and all of them need water, so any program looking to benefit a broader community must be disability inclusive.

Disability inclusion in water management needs be considered from the very outset of the planning and design phases. A proactive approach helps identify barriers and understand how persons with disabilities may be impacted and, in turn, how disability considerations can shape the program to be more effective. This lays a strong foundation to mainstream inclusion and identify entry points throughout the program to strengthen disability specific objectives and outcomes. It is also a key aspect to ensuring that programs are adequately resourced and budgeted for, to accommodate the needs of people with disability—which is often overlooked in water management and WASH programs.

Local Disabled People’s Organisation need to be engaged and supported

Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) form the core of the international disability rights movement. They embody the principle of ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ which emerged in response to historical practices where decisions about disability policies and interventions were often made without consulting or involving those directly affected by them. For inclusive WRM and WASH programming, involving DPOs is a crucial step in being able to identify and addressing barriers that are faced by people with disabilities.

DPOs bring expertise in disability inclusion, knowledge about the local context and have extensive networks to reach out to people with disabilities—critical elements distinguishing them from NGOs and civil society organisations. Facilitating partnerships and engagement between these organisations can be mutually beneficial as DPOs may need support with technical knowledge in the context of water management, as well as the capacity to mainstream inclusion—expertise that NGOs provide. It also saves time and resources while creating meaningful spaces to engage with people with disabilities.

Disability inclusive data collection and monitoring is crucial

The lack of disability-specific data in water management programs and development efforts is a significant concern. Persons with disabilities exclusion from data collection processes leads to an insufficient understanding of their unique needs and challenges in accessing water resources. While persons with disabilities are acknowledged in the SDGs, this recognition falls short in the monitoring framework. Among 169 targets, only seven specifically address disability inclusion, and merely ten out of 231 indicators mandate the disaggregation of data by disability.

Targets and indicators can influence government decisions and policies. Our monitoring and evaluation processes must adopt accessible methods to ensure disability inclusive data, disaggregated by disability types, age and gender is collected. Addressing the data gap is critical for fostering inclusivity, ensuring that water management programs genuinely cater to the diverse needs of all community members. Beyond the practical implications, the danger of such a data deficit lies in perpetuating the perception of persons with disabilities as always reliant on assistance, overshadowing their strengths and unique contributions to society.

Bridge the WASH-WRM divide

WASH and WRM seem to have become two distinct sectors with different expertise, governance, and infrastructure leading to further divisions in norms, interests as well as policy priorities. This is hampering sector- wide coordination and impeding the progress of SDG6.

The centrality of water to all the SDGs goes beyond ensuring access to WASH services—which may seem like the most obvious necessity for people with disabilities. But truly inclusive water and climate action needs to consider the broader framework of Integrated Water Resources Management which encompasses critical sectors such as agricultural production, food security and irrigation amongst others. Numerous case studies from across the world highlighting the participation of persons with disabilities in agriculture showcase their significant contributions, and capacity to generate income and improve livelihoods. Beyond inclusive WASH programs, there’s a crucial need for accessible irrigation technologies, inclusive water and soil conservation techniques, and holistic agricultural water management practices. True progress lies not only in securing access to water but in fostering inclusive participation in water governance.

The water sector confronts an equity crisis, exacerbated by the reality that our water resources are limited and irreplaceable. Absence of water security and effective water management practices threatens economic growth, food security, global health and most importantly the ‘leave no one behind’ principle.

The Australian Water Partnership recognises that the integration of gender equality, disability, and social inclusion leads to more equitable and sustainable outcomes. AWP is currently supporting two disability focused activities in the Mekong region— Climate Change, Water Security and Disability Inclusion Research in Vietnam led by Water Sensitive Cities Australia in partnership with Hanoi Association for People with Disabilities (DP Hanoi) and Strengthening Disability Inclusive Water Solutions in Cambodia led by WaterAid Australia in partnership with WaterAid Cambodia and the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organisation (CDPO).

Featured image: WSCA and DP Hanoi research team with persons with disabilities in Thanh Chuong district, Nghe An province. Credit:Kien Nguyen-Trung
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