Five risk-reduction strategies updated with age-old knowledge
Indigenous peoples’ understanding of disaster risk uses an enormous dataset – traditional knowledge and folklore reaching back many generations.
Cultures that have developed alongside natural hazards incorporate risk awareness and resilience measures into a range of beliefs and practices. These are based on a solid evidence base of lived experience.
These five indigenous practices have used traditional knowledge, alongside modern techniques, to help manage disaster risk:
Ancient Australian aboriginal techniques to reduce bushfire risk include cultural burning techniques known as “mosaic burns”.
Controlled fires in small areas burn at relatively low temperatures, reducing undergrowth and dead wood while preserving larger trees and allowing wildlife to escape. These controlled burnoffs reduce the risk of wildfires, and, if they do occur, limit their destructiveness.
Following the devastating “Black Summer” of 2019 to 2020, these techniques are being incorporated into wider wildfire risk reduction efforts.
“The burning practices of indigenous peoples have also played a critical role in the creation of and stewardship of ecosystems in North America,” explains the GAR 2022 report.
“Polycultural knowledge about such risks can sometimes be made through governments and institutional actors learning from indigenous cultures management practices that go millenniums,” the report notes.
Natural flood management
In Nepal and on the Tibetan Plateau, communities use age-old traditional forecasting and flood-prevention methods to limit the risks of seasonal flooding. These include planting flood-resistant crops and digging drainage ditches and moats.
“Community-based early warning systems use environmental indicators to identify patterns associated with the onset of flooding,” the report says.
Observations of changes in cloud shapes, rainfall patterns, fauna activity, wind velocity, star positions and temperatures help anticipate floods and trigger preparations to minimize their impacts.
Locals then take preparatory measures, moving their possessions, livestock and living areas to higher ground, and stockpiling essentials.
In the aftermath of floods, traditional remedies – like using green coconut milk to treat diarrhea, cholera and dysentery – help with recovery, alongside any modern medical treatments that might be available.
Resilient sustainable recovery
After the 2010 and 2016 earthquakes in Canterbury, New Zealand, traditional Maori knowledge was incorporated into resilience planning.
The local Ngäi Tahu tribe worked with government to map environmental and cultural assets, and ensure a holistic recovery. This mapping of traditional heritage areas has helped ensure environmental restoration, biodiversity and future sustainability.
“Longer-term outcomes include the development of heritage risk models that map risks to traditional assets and the creation of heritage risk alerts that categorize graduated outcomes in terms of risk exposure,” sates the report.
Community-based early warning
Maori traditional knowledge is also used in to integrate community-based early warning systems for volcanic activity at Mount Ruapehu, based on observation of changes in flora and animal behaviour, alongside digital sensors.
The approach combines traditional cultural knowledge with modern techniques, to preserve both traditional cultural values, as the volcano has a central position in the tribes’ beliefs, and physical environmental assets.
“The systemic approach to understanding the connection between communities and ecosystems is increasingly being understood within wider political systems,” observes the GAR report.
In Sulawesi, Indonesia, the Kailli communities have passed on historical knowledge to provide a deeper understanding of natural hazards.
The local language describes a range of hazards and their causes: tsunamis, earthquakes, and ground liquefaction resulting from earthquakes. Folksongs recount past experiences of disasters, and pass on lessons learnt from predecessors.
The villages include safe areas, known as ‘kinta’, which have always been used as refuges during seismic events. Following a large-scale liquefaction event in 2018, structures in ‘kinta’ suffered less damage and vulnerability to liquefaction.
A new way of thinking about risk
Across the world, authorities have begun to realise the benefits of incorporating indigenous knowledge and traditional techniques into their disaster risk reduction and resilience strategies, while indigenous communities benefit from incorporating new technologies into their customary approaches.
Effective disaster risk management can benefit from using indigenous knowledge alongside science, but this will require a shift in thinking about risk and knowledge.
“A first step is to shift from the idea of people and systems being simply interconnected, to the concepts of interdependent and interrelation thinking and acting in systems,” the report argues.
“This process requires humility, curiosity, and new scientific respect for relational world-views.”
Edited by Martin Field. This article is part of a series based on chapters of the GAR 2022 report. Read more about cognitive biases and their relation to disaster risk reduction (DRR) in the GAR 2022 report.