Flood preparedness for disabled persons — Are we doing enough?
by Peter Tan. Posted on January 4, 2014, Saturday
FLOODING in Malaysia is a cyclical occurrence given that we are hit by the Northeast Monsoon, which dumps heavy rain on the east coast states in the peninsula and as well as the west coast of Sarawak from November to March every year.
The images of the recent floods in Miri and Bintulu prompted me to revisit the topic on dealing with disasters that I wrote in this column last year. How prepared are we in evacuating mobility impaired persons and how accessible are the evacuation centres?
My family used to live in the fringe of a notoriously flood-prone area in Penang. Down the road from our house, the water could rise to chest-height if it rained non-stop for several hours. It rarely affected us though as the drain outside the house would just overflow most of the time.
One year, water poured into the house. As it continued to rise, my parents were at a loss on how I could be evacuated should the situation get worse. We lived in a single-storey terraced house and there was no higher ground for me to escape to in my wheelchair. When the rain finally stopped, we were wading in filthy ankle-deep water. It was already nightfall. There was no electricity. We had no idea when the water would subside. I shuddered to think about the fate that could befall me had the rain persisted. That happened 20 years ago.
According to the Incheon Strategy, a set of disability-inclusive development goals agreed by 53 countries in Asia and the Pacific, disabled persons and other vulnerable groups are at higher risk of death, injury and additional impairments as a result of exclusion from disaster risk reduction policies, plans and programmes.
From my conversations with officers involved in disaster relief and management recently, there is still no specific action plan to manage the rescue and evacuation of disabled persons in situations of disaster in an orderly manner. This omission is unacceptable as severe flood is a natural and annual event in some states in Malaysia.
Section 40 of the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 specifically states that disabled persons have the right to assistance on equal basis in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies which include natural disasters.
Furthermore, the Act obligates the government to take all necessary measures to ensure that disabled persons have the right of assistance in such situations by way of legal as well as administrative mechanisms.
First and foremost, I could not find a hotline to call for assistance after trawling the Internet. There should be a unified telephone number that is easy to remember for this purpose and widely publicised in the mass media. In its absence, the best bet is to contact the police or Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba).
Time is of the essence in flash floods. An up-to-date registry of persons needing assisted evacuations should be maintained. This will be very helpful in case telephone lines are down. Rescue personnel could be dispatched without delay to check on the situation and provide assistance if necessary. All rescue personnel should also be trained to handle the evacuation safely and in a dignified way.
The next issue is the accessibility of relief centres. The majority of schools and community halls that are used for this purpose are not friendly to mobility impaired persons. The question begging answers is why are these buildings not in compliance with the Uniform Building By-Law 34A (UBBL 34A) which requires them to provide access to disabled persons?
The easiest alternative is to put up disabled persons in hospitals. However, this is against the spirit of the Act, an indication of the failure of the government at all levels in providing suitable facilities to everyone in relief centres and a clear violation of the UBBL 34A, which was gazetted by the various states in the 1990s.
On the other hand, mobility impaired persons such as senior citizens and wheelchair users should be aware of several pertinent points to prepare well ahead for such situations, especially those living in low-lying and flood-prone areas.
It is a good thing that the monsoon comes at a predetermined time every year. This allows ample time to stock up on groceries to tide us over the period when we are trapped at home. A list of contact numbers for all nearby police and fire stations would be very useful if and when the situation turns dire.
We should be prepared for evacuation if the worst comes to the worst by packing all essential items such as important documents, medications, adaptive aids, clothes and even diapers to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Last but not least, keep some spare cash handy for incidental expenses.
Although monsoon flooding is a cyclical phenomenon in this country, the relief agencies time and again are still caught with their pants down for not being able to deal with the disaster decisively, especially in food distribution and provision of basic necessities.
It is high time the government look into the issue of disabled persons in situations of disaster more seriously. There should be a comprehensive plan that all parties are aware of, from the disaster management and relief committee members right down to officers in the field and affected persons.
Malaysia, being a member country that agreed to the Incheon Strategy, has a responsibility to ensure that disabled persons are included in regular emergency preparedness drills and other risk reduction measures to prevent or minimise risk when disasters occur.
My final question is: What has been achieved so far since the Incheon Strategy was adopted in November 2012, and the resolution of the conference by stakeholders on the same topic in July 2013 that was presented to the government?
Comments can reach the writer via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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