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German Flood Deaths Highlight Climate Change Risks for People with Disabilities

Inclusive Climate Action and Planning Needed after 12 Perish

The “Lebenshilfe-Haus” or ‘assisted-living facility”, where twelve people with disabilities drowned in floods on July 15, 2021. © 2021 Thomas Frey/dpa via AP

On July 15, twelve people with disabilities living in a group home drowned in floods in Sinzig, Germany, because they did not manage to evacuate in time.

This is not the first time people with disabilities in group homes died during a climate change calamity. In 2017 12 older people in a Florida nursing home suffocated due to high temperatures after Hurricane Irma, a tropical cyclone exacerbated by climate change, knocked out their air conditioning. In July 2020 65 people in a nursing home in Kuma, Japan, were not evacuated during a flood. Fourteen of them died.

Natural disasters and other extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change are particularly threatening for people with disabilities and older people who often require assistance and additional time to evacuate, and may not have access to warnings. A United Nations Human Rights Council report from April 2020 highlighted that people with disabilities are at increased risk of the adverse impacts of climate change. An April 2021 report on climate change and older people warned that adults aged 65 and older are at higher risk of dying during natural hazards.

As the climate crisis intensifies, governments of big greenhouse gas emitters like Germany have human rights obligations to reduce their emissions and prepare for these foreseeable risks, in part by ensuring those most at risk are protected. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which Germany is a party, requires states to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of natural disasters.

At least 166 people have died and many more are missing after severe flooding in Germany and other western European countries over the last week. German officials should investigate the full impact of the floods, including by collecting data by age and disability. No future discussions in Germany or elsewhere on evacuation, disaster risk reduction, or climate change should happen without people with disabilities and older people at the table, including those living in institutions, where many people already face risks and are often deprived of agency.

Those most at risk of climate change deserve to have their voices heard and their rights upheld before disaster strikes. 

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