Across the globe, persons with disabilities experience mortality rates up to four times higher in natural disasters than persons without disabilities. Although 15% of the world’s population has a disability, climate change adaptation efforts do not adequately take their needs into account. To what extent is Uzbekistan ready to adapt to climate change taking into consideration the needs of persons with disabilities?

In November 2022, as part of a World Bank research project, persons with disabilities living in several regions of the country expressed concerns that they remain unprepared for the consequences of climate change that could affect their lives, health, and well-being.

The study involved interviewing about 20 persons with disabilities living in six villages and several urban areas of Jizzakh, Syrdarya and Tashkent regions, as well as 40 employees of organizations working in the field of protecting the rights and interests of persons with disabilities.

The purpose of the research project was to study the vulnerability of persons with various forms of disabilities to the effects of climate change in Uzbekistan. Research findings are described in detail in the World Bank publication “Climate Change and Disability Inclusion in Uzbekistan.”

In April 2022, devastating mudslides levelled houses, damaged infrastructure and killed four people in villages of the Jizzakh region. Among the respondents who took part in the study was a resident of the area named Shakhzod (his real name is changed).

Shakhzod’s village also suffered from the natural disaster. Given his disability, it is not difficult for Shakhzod to imagine the difficulties he might face if he had to evacuate his home during a potential natural disaster in the future.

With his homemade cane made from plastic pipes, Shakhzod can only navigate the village’s uneven, unpaved streets with the help of others. After a recent mudslide, he spent a week in the hospital and is concerned that repeat events and the lack of adequate facilities to evacuate persons with disabilities could again negatively impact his well-being. Persons with disabilities face similar situations in other regions of the country.

Social isolation makes persons with disabilities more vulnerable

Like many countries in the world, Uzbekistan is suffering from climate change. Droughts, extreme heat, erratic rainfall, landslides, water shortages and air pollution are expected to become more frequent and severe in their impact. The drying up of the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, is also generating negative environmental and socio-economic consequences for much of the country. How might these factors affect persons with disabilities?

Interviews conducted as part of the World Bank study showed that persons with disabilities are largely excluded from Uzbekistan’s social and political life. Almost all respondents were isolated in their homes for a variety of reasons, including social discrimination, as well as a lack of assistive mobility devices and accessible public infrastructure to facilitate mobility for persons with disabilities. This social isolation limits their interaction with others outside their families and is also a barrier to the effective evacuation of persons with disabilities in natural disaster events.

Most respondents also noted that they did not have the opportunity to participate in meetings with local authorities. The lack of participation in political processes is partly due to their surrounding environment. The rural mahalla buildings that were observed during the study were not accessible for persons with disabilities.

The entrances to these buildings had steep staircases with no railings or ramps and were thus inaccessible to persons with physical disabilities. As a result, representatives of this group cannot take part in discussions of socially significant issues, including how to improve conditions for persons with disabilities at the local level.

Exclusion of persons with disabilities increases risks in the context of climate change

The social and political exclusion of persons with disabilities increases their risk in the context of climate change. For example, exclusion constrains their access to essential health services and assistive rehabilitation devices, as well as to the social protection system. These challenges are likely to become even greater during climate-related disasters when individuals' need for health and social care increases.

The marginalized status of persons with disabilities precludes their active participation, muting their voice in decision-making processes at the local level, including on issues related to climate change adaptation. For example, persons with disabilities are unable to participate in decision making around disaster preparedness and recovery measures that impact persons with disabilities.

Respondents who took part in the study noted the difficulties they face when contacting government agencies to obtain necessary medical services, assistive devices for certain categories of persons with disabilities, as well as disability benefits and pensions.

Such difficulties are especially common in rural areas of Uzbekistan, where villages may be located far from district centers, and public transport services are limited and not adapted to the needs of persons with disabilities. For example, one respondent, a woman with a spinal cord injury, said that the local authorities did not provide her with adequate assistance when she sought medical attention.

Challenges related to disaster management

During the study, respondents expressed concerns about the existing disaster management system, which does not consider the needs of this group of citizens. Given the poor condition of roads infrastructure, respondents with physical disabilities noted the challenges they would face if they needed to quickly evacuate their homes due to a possible natural disaster.

Respondents with visual and hearing impairments indicated that they could not rely sufficiently on disaster alerts, including those broadcasted on television. Sign language interpretation is often absent from the broadcasts of local television channels. Accordingly, members of this group are forced to rely on other people to inform them of emergency events. However, there is always a risk that this kind of assistance from others may not be available at the time of possible natural disasters.

Measures needed for inclusive adaptation to climate change

The situation for persons with disabilities in Uzbekistan is not unique. The findings of the World Bank study are in line with the results of a 2023 global online survey by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. Only 8% of persons with disabilities globally reported that local disaster risk reduction plans address the specific needs of this group. 86% reported that they were not involved in decision-making and planning around disaster risk reduction at the local level.

Some of the above challenges can be addressed by investing in the development of physical infrastructure to ensure that it is fully accessible to persons with disabilities. Other issues require reform of the communications system or more systematic planning of emergency assistance that considers the needs of persons with different types of disabilities.

The Government of Uzbekistan is taking measures to improve the participation of persons with disabilities in disaster risk management processes. This includes measures to develop the necessary regulatory framework. In particular, in June 2021, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified, and the law “On the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” was developed, which entered into force in January 2021.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities obliges state parties to ensure the inclusive and accessible participation of persons with disabilities in planning and managing the risks associated with the impacts of climate change. The World Bank study recommends the adoption of measures that would help achieve this goal in Uzbekistan, as well as reduce the vulnerability of persons with disabilities to the effects of climate change.

In particular, the authors recommend that the authorities implement the following measures:

  • Create the necessary conditions for the social and political inclusion of persons with disabilities, starting with their participation in the activities of mahalla citizens' assemblies, especially in remote rural areas. It is necessary to ensure the wide involvement of persons with disabilities in the activities of local self-government bodies and in decision-making processes at the local level;
  • Improve persons with disabilities' access to basic health services and rehabilitation facilities, including during climate-related disasters;
  • Expand the coverage of the social protection system for persons with disabilities, while increasing the amount of social assistance provided to this group, taking into account their needs in the context of climate change (adaptive social protection);
  • Revise guidelines for disaster preparedness and response to consider the needs of persons with disabilities. The guidelines may cover emergency hotlines, evacuation points, temporary shelter, and medical equipment and medicines for persons with disabilities;
  • Increase the availability and use of disaggregated administrative data for planning, responding to, and developing the reforms needed to effectively protect the rights and interests of persons with disabilities; and
  • Organize public awareness campaigns with the participation of persons with disabilities and organizations of persons with disabilities on the impacts of climate change and the actions needed to adapt to them, taking into account the needs of persons with disabilities.

Read more about the findings and recommendations of the study in the World Bank publication.

Adam Auerbach, Audrey Sacks, and Dilmurad Yusupov