View on Namche Bazar, Khumbu district, Himalayas, Nepal.

Intersectionality, Indigeneity, and Disability Climate Justice in Nepal

By Pratima Gurung, Penelope J.S. Stein, and Michael Ashley Stein

The climate crisis disproportionately impacts marginalized populations experiencing multilayered   and intersecting oppression, such as Indigenous Peoples with disabilities. To achieve climate justice, it is imperative to understand how multiple layers of oppression — arising from forces that include ableism, colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism — interact and cause distinctive forms of multiple and intersectional discrimination. Only by understanding these forces can we develop effective, inclusive climate solutions.

Indigenous Peoples with disabilities in Nepal are disparately impacted by climate change due to intersecting and compounding discrimination that threatens their rights to life, health, food, water, and cultural life, among other human rights. Further, they are excluded from meaningful participation in climate change-related planning, policies, and programs. Yet, disability-inclusive and intersectional climate mitigation and adaptation is required for State compliance with the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as well as human rights obligations such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In Nepal, Indigenous Peoples with disabilities have Indigenous values and knowledge of how to live sustainably and adapt to harsh geo-ecological conditions over millennia, as well as experiential knowledge of disability. However, severe climate hazards coupled with institutional and structural barriers and limited government responses are challenging their ability to adapt. Located in the Himalayas, Nepal is experiencing increasing temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, glacial retreat, and increasingly frequent and intense climate emergencies; it ranked fourth in the 2017 Global Climate Risk Index of most impacted countries. Strikingly, the glacier area in Nepal decreased 24% from 1980-2010, and glacial retreat has decreased mountain slope stability. Temperature rise is causing acute climate hazards such as landslides, avalanches, floods, heatwaves, and forest fires, as well as chronic hazards including droughts, glacial retreat, and glacial outburst floods.

Intersecting Impacts

Indigenous Peoples in Nepal face internal colonialist oppression from the ‘dominant group,’ loss of land, barriers to accessing forest and customary sustainable food practices, criminalization of customary practices, and social marginalization that threatens their traditional connection to land, natural resources, and water. Around 65% of ancestral land was located within Nepal’s national parks and reserves by 2015, and many evicted Indigenous Peoples remain landless. Nepal’s National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act does not include a provision for the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples as mandated by the Nepal-ratified United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Nor does the Forest Act 2019 contain provisions to protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Instead, Indigenous Peoples face forced eviction, rape, illegal killings, and the expunging of Indigenous livelihood systems that heighten climate change impacts. A 2021 study found 80% of Indigenous Peoples with disabilities have no land certificate and a mere 1.1% are able to access the forest for customary food practices. In Nepal, land ownership facilitates access to public services, citizen certification, and loans, while landlessness heightens poverty. Indigenous Peoples with disabilities, who face multiple and intersectional discrimination, and may be landless, are disproportionately affected by climate change.

Many Indigenous Peoples at the frontline of the climate crisis inhabit rural and remote communities, live symbiotically with the ecosystem on ancestral land, do not have access to information in Nepali, and consequently are disproportionately at risk from climate hazards that are increasing in prevalence and severity. A study of Indigenous Peoples in Khumbu found climate change threatens their health, land, and livelihood, with 70% experiencing decreasing crop yield. Importantly, climate change threatens sacred cultural practices and intergenerational knowledge transfer. Some sacred Himalayan glacial lakes, rivers, and spaces, for instance, have become too dangerous to visit. And although Indigenous agricultural practices are being utilized by Indigenous communities facing climate change, studies indicate that age affects the use of Indigenous agriculture knowledge, with younger people having less positive perceptions of these practices. Climate risk is further heightened by multiple intersecting dimensions of social identities and categories, with persons with disabilities and women significantly disproportionately impacted. Although the Indigenous, women, and disability movements are building momentum, there is inadequate recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and women with disabilities.

Persons with disabilities writ large face increased risk of death in acute climate crises due to a lack of disability-inclusive planning, early warning systems, accessible climate-related information, transportation, and evacuation shelters, and discriminatory attitudes and structural barriers based on disability, gender, and Indigeneity. A survey in Nepal found that 85% of persons with disabilities were unaware of early warning systems, 80% lacked fully accessible shelters, and extreme weather and disasters hindered the access of 56% to health care facilities. Water insecurity also disparately impacts persons with disabilities. In mountain agricultural communities, more than 70% of springs utilized as water sources have been reduced, while 12% are waterless. This depletion heightens the water insecurity of persons with disabilities with limited access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) which is vital to health and well-being. Despite legislative advances, including The Act Relating to Persons with Disabilities, persons with disabilities continue to experience discrimination in accessing public services, education, and health care. Disability discrimination is amplified by multiple and intersecting exclusion due to Indigeneity, poverty, language, and insufficient education and legal awareness. For example, Indigenous Peoples with disabilities often do not benefit from existing social protection due to informational, physical, and geographic inaccessibility, and lack documentation. A study found that 74% of Indigenous Peoples with disabilities and 85% of Dalit with disabilities reported inadequate or poor access to public services. Moreover, 70% of respondents with disabilities had no access to emergency cash during or post disaster. Additionally, women and girls with disabilities, the deafblind, and persons with psychosocial, intellectual, and other complex disabilities lack effective government support. Notably, 80% of respondents with disabilities never participated in local climate discussions.

The climate risk of Indigenous women with disabilities is heightened through intertwined Indigeneity, disability, and gender discrimination. Climate change exacerbates gender inequality, increasing the labor women must undertake to obtain water, firewood, and animal feed due to diminishing resources. Indigenous women with disabilities face time poverty, reduced access to safe drinking water, and food, and increased exposure to safety risks, with 75% of these women experiencing food insecurity. Moreover, a survey found 57.7% of women with disabilities had experienced emotional, physical, and sexual violence. Notably, climate disasters increase exposure to and trigger violence against women.

Disability Climate Justice

In Nepal, disability climate justice has yet to become a focal advocacy issue for organizations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) due to a lack of accessible information at the interface of disability and climate change. Essential first steps include formulating priorities, developing inclusive climate solutions, and enabling societal transformation to address the marginalization and subjugation of persons with disabilities and Indigeneity. Doing so requires training Indigenous self-advocates and climate champions with disabilities. Some progress has been made on this front. National Indigenous Disabled Women Association Nepal (NIDWAN), for instance, has been engaged in documenting the voices of person with disabilities, women, Indigenous Peoples, and other marginalized groups since the 2015 Paris Agreement negotiations. NIDWAN disseminated an advocacy statement for disability-inclusive climate action from Indigenous women and girls with disabilities at COP27 and COP 28. It called for the meaningful participation of Indigenous women and girls with disabilities in strategic climate-related decision-making, the right to free, prior, and informed consent in the development of climate initiatives, recognition of the role of Indigenous Peoples and persons with disabilities in climate-resilient sustainable food production and removal of barriers to accessing land, and increased access to climate funds.

Mitigating the disproportionate effect of climate change on persons with disabilities also requires addressing structural disability inequality through public awareness raising campaigns, mainstreaming disability within the Climate Change Management Division and forestry, agriculture, and energy sectors, among others, and ensuring disability specific measures are stipulated within policies, plans, and programs. Moreover, Nepal’s Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens, a nodal ministry for persons with disabilities, women, Indigenous Peoples, and other stakeholders, must consider the diversity of the disability community—including Indigenous Peoples, Dalit, Madhesi, LGBTQIA+, women, older persons, and children with disabilities—to ensure their meaningful participation, and develop specific and intersectional initiatives with all stakeholders.

Transformational change is required that acknowledges the lived experiential disability and ethno-ecological knowledges of Indigenous Peoples with disabilities and promotes equity, sustainable, traditional livelihood systems, access to forest and land for Indigenous customary practices, agroecological systems, and biodiversity.

Inclusive Climate Responses

Importantly, references to persons with disabilities and other disparately at risk groups have been included in Nepal’s Second Nationally Determined Contribution (2020), National Climate Change Policy (2019), and National Adaptation Plan (2021-2050). Nepal’s Second Nationally Determined Contribution mandates “equal access to women, children, youth, Indigenous Peoples and marginalized groups during participation, decision-making and benefit-sharing,” and that by 2030 all local governments prepare and implement climate adaptation plans “focusing on women, differently-abled, children, senior citizens, youth, [and] Indigenous Peoples.” However, stakeholder consultations have not yet included Indigenous Peoples with disabilities and other persons with disabilities. Further, Nepal’s National Climate Change Policy (2019) represents that the concerns of persons with disabilities, women, and Indigeneity shall be addressed in climate-related matters, includes targeted agriculture-based adaptation programs, and affirms that access to climate-related information and technology will be increased for persons with different languages, sexes, and disability. These mandates have likewise not yet been implemented at the community level. Nepal’s National Adaptation Plan (2021-2050), launched by the Prime Minister in November 2023, recognizes women, Indigenous Peoples, and persons with disabilities as “vulnerable to current and projected climate hazards.” The objectives reference vulnerable communities, people, populations, and groups, and highlight that reduced access to safe drinking water increases the climate risk of “vulnerable groups,” including persons with disabilities. The objectives also reference engaging with Indigenous Peoples in participatory watershed conservation, Indigenous Knowledge-centered tourism, gender equality programs, and people-centered early warning systems.

Implementation of the National Adaptation Plan is an opportunity to: ensure the meaningful participation of persons with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples with disabilities, and other marginalized groups to enable an effective intersectional rights-based approach to climate governance; ensure the accessibility of early warning systems, WASH services, and climate-resilient construction; and integrate disability, gender, Indigeneity, health, and climate change into the academic curriculum.

Updating Nepal’s Nationally Determined Contribution provides an opportunity for: establishing mechanisms to enable meaningful participation in climate decision-making, such as budgeting; incorporating disability-inclusive measures for climate adaptation and mitigation, for example, inclusive Action for Climate Empowerment that targets disability, Indigeneity, gender, and youth; increasing access to disability-inclusive shock responsive social protection, such as pre- and post-disaster cash transfers; strengthening psychosocial support and disability-inclusive health services; promoting Indigenous Peoples with disabilities’ climate-resilient food production; and underscoring the imperative that all State actions must respect, fulfil, and promote human rights.

Climate adaptation and mitigation responses must include disability-specific measures, intersectional cross-cutting approaches, and transformational responses to change societal structure and promote equity. Inclusive climate solutions must be developed by and with OPDs in alignment with “Nothing about us without us.” Civil society organizations should facilitate the meaningful participation of intersectionally marginalized groups and develop advocacy coalitions.

Inclusive climate measures include, for instance, capacity building on climate change and disability both within government and civil society, creating accessible emergency shelters, and increasing access to disability allowances, including within Indigenous communities. Inclusive education is required that acknowledges the risk of climate change, the importance of Indigenous Knowledge, collaborative advocacy, and action. Climate responses must include risk assessments for violence and ensure that community outreach and reporting mechanisms are accessible to girls and women with disabilities, including those in Indigenous communities. Importantly, both climate and loss and damage funds must respond to the disproportionate impact of climate change on persons experiencing multiple and intersectional discrimination, including Indigenous Peoples and women with disabilities.

Pratima Gurung is an academic activist and an indigenous woman with a disability from Nepal.

Penelope J.S. Stein is a Senior Research Associate at the Harvard Law School Project on Disability and Fellow in East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard Law School.

Michael Ashley Stein is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, and a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School.

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.