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This 28-year-old from Nepal is telling COP28: Don't forget people with disabilities

Umesh Balal, an activist and member of the Indigenous Magar people of Nepal, says people with disabilities need to be part of the climate conversation.
Christopher Pike for NPR
Umesh Balal, an activist and member of the Indigenous Magar people of Nepal, says people with disabilities need to be part of the climate conversation.

Draped in a kachhad, a traditional Nepalese cotton garment wrapped around the waist, 28-year-old Umesh Balal walked into his meetings at the COP28 conference in Dubai with a sense of determination.

He is there to advocate for inclusion of disability rights in the climate change agenda — an aspect that he says has long been ignored by organizers of the world's largest annual meeting on climate issues. Balal, who has dwarfism, has dedicated himself to making sure all kinds of marginalized voices are heard in discussions about climate change.

Balal works as the youth program manager at the Nepal Water Foundation, focusing on projects related to climate and disability inclusion. They conduct workshops across the country on the water issues residents face due to increasing glacial melts.

Balal hails from the Magar tribe who live in the Himalayan foothills of western Nepal, and he has seen his people forced to migrate due to the unstable environment. His biggest fear is being displaced from the mountain range, his ancestral homeland. He told NPR that he wants to use the COP28 platform not just to champion the rights of people with disabilities but also of the many indigenous peoples in Nepal.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get involved in climate change advocacy?

As a student I was curious about biodiversity and science and involved myself in research on environmental science. Those were my first few interactions that introduced me to the climate sector. Being from a mountainous region, I learned more about how climate change impacts our people, which led me to develop climate anxiety — this feeling of impending disaster.

Umesh Balal Magar, a Nepalese climate advocate, attended the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit in Dubai.
/ Christopher Pike for NPR
Christopher Pike for NPR
Umesh Balal Magar, a Nepalese climate advocate, attended the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit in Dubai.

As a member of an indigenous community, I have witnessed migration [from] our community due to urbanization as well as a way to cope with the impact of the climate crisis. But during the migration it's not only the people who are displaced, but also their culture. Their culture, their indigenous practices and knowledge, are left behind and vulnerable to being lost

It was amidst this [feeling of helplessness] that I came across Greta Thunberg. Her activism inspired me to participate and pursue advocacy on climate issues. She continues to be an inspiration until today. It has helped me overcome some of the climate anxiety I have felt earlier and work towards solutions.

When did you realize that your climate activism intersects with disability rights advocacy?

The more I deep-dived into climate science, I learned about the different impacts climate change has across different sectors. It was then that I realized that we are not [all] in the same boat. People with more resources have better chances of coping with the climate crisis. But for the poorer communities, the less developed countries, they don't have the same opportunities or capacity, which will push them further into the crisis.

And it is even harder for people with disabilities. Many people with disabilities [in Nepal] live below the poverty line, so they don't have access to proper education or opportunities for growth. As a result, they aren't able to advocate for their rights. They are often seen as victims by the society and not as contributors to [making] policies or partners in implementing solutions.

In fact, I did not start advocating for disability rights until after I started working on climate change. It was only [then] that I realized there is a connection between the two issues and they intersect.

What are some of the climate issues that are of immediate concern to you as a disability rights activist?

One of the first things I have been campaigning for is disaster preparedness among disabled people. Because we never build disaster rescue plans that cater to the needs of the disabled people who are extremely vulnerable when on the front line of disasters. These vulnerabilities are exacerbated among marginalized groups like women, who have concerns of safety, health, menstrual health; pregnant disabled women have needs during disasters. There are also different kinds of disabilities, and often plans don't take them into account.

Access to life saving information and early warning systems, as well as the awareness [of how] to interpret the information, is also a concern. For example, the government provides public reports predicting [4 inches] of heavy rainfall, but how can disabled people have access to that information, and even if they do have access to it, [without adequate education] are they really able to comprehend how much is [4 inches] of rainfall to be able to plan action? These are some of the problems I see with lack of inclusion of disabled people in climate response.

Are you satisfied with progress made at COP events?

Overall there has been little to no engagement or inclusion for the disabled community in the climate discussion. I believe last year at COP27 was the first time a member of the disabled community [addressed] the plenary. And while this year's COP is more inclusive in terms of accessibility and mobility, it is lacking in terms of active engagement [with disability rights advocates]. I have yet to see any person [with disabilities] who has intervened in the plenary or in the high-level discussion. We are on the front line of climate disaster but we never get any active engagement.

The launch of the loss and damage fund is also being seen as a success, but it took nearly 30 years since the start of COP to put this together. And it will not be truly successful until it is operational at the local level, benefiting the affected communities. It should also not be a loan given out by big businesses to countries impacted by climate disasters, rather it should be grants to support communities to rebuild. These are still some concerns we have.

How has the response been toward your advocacy on disability rights and climate?

I am trying to take this opportunity to push the agenda on disability and climate issues and gain momentum because only raising awareness cannot bring about change. We need to find ways to empower more disabled people.

The response from the disabled communities has also been positive. When I interact with them, the first thing they often ask me is how I got involved in climate advocacy, because it is so rare for people with disabilities to work in this sector. Most are still struggling to secure basic human rights.

I am privileged that I come from a supportive family, where I had access to good education which allowed me to grow in life. This is what I want for others, to be able to break that threshold, to change the way they view their lives.

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar

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Ruchi Kumar