Author(s): Fionna M.D. Samuels

Using local knowledge in disaster policy is challenging, but necessary

Source(s): Temblor
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Although policymakers acknowledge the importance of local knowledge in disaster risk reduction, implemented strategies may leave locals feeling ignored.

Disaster risk reduction policies, true to their name, aim to minimize the risks associated with disasters. This is incredibly important in areas prone to earthquakes. In these places, the difference between a structure standing and crumbling can come down to policy decisions like seismic building codes or retrofitting old buildings. Other policies impact who gets support in communities and how resources are shared after a disaster.

Local community members have an intimate knowledge of their area and are often not helpless victims in disasters. In fact, policymakers frequently refer to incorporating local, traditional or Indigenous knowledge into new policy. However, research published earlier this year in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction found that although policymakers say that they value local knowledge, they find it difficult to translate that knowledge into actionable policy.

Variety of local knowledge makes for difficult policy incorporation

To determine how local knowledge is incorporated into policy, Robert Šakić Trogrlić, lead author of the study and disaster risk reduction researcher at King’s College London, first had to define it. “I decided not to settle with a single definition, but think more about different characteristics of local knowledge,” he said. These characteristics encompass everything from locals’ understanding of what risks are in the area and the vulnerability to those hazards, to predicting when a hazard might strike and adequately preparing.

With this definition, Šakić Trogrlić and his colleagues began interviewing external stakeholders — those who create and implement policy. They focused on communities in Southern Malawi with extremely high risk of flooding, which results from rains in the highlands causing flooding of the lowlands. Because of the high risk, Šakić Trogrlić said that many people in these communities have a way to predict and prepare for the next flood; the fishers have a fishing-based warning system, whereas the farmers have a farming-based system. Elders could see signs in the flora and fauna of an impending flood that others didn’t notice, and where people lived changed how they perceived risk. He said that overall, the local knowledge was incredibly diverse and context based.  

Green valley with river in background

A mountain view of the Shire River in Malawi, a river that frequently floods surrounding communities in the wet season. Credit: Ismail Mia (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Taking all of this into account, Šakić Trogrlić said he found external stakeholders truly wanted to incorporate local knowledge into policy implementation but struggled with how it should be included. “They genuinely were saying, ‘we see it, we see that communities appreciate it, we see it’s out there, and we know that we should use it,’” he said. “But it didn’t translate to ‘we are using it.’”

For example, how can the local knowledge of animal and plant behavior prior to floods be incorporated into a technology-based early warning system? There is a dearth of scientific evidence that local knowledge like this works to predict floods. This created an insurmountable hurdle for external stakeholders to incorporate what the community knew and observed into policy. Ultimately, new policies touted by governments and nongovernmental organizations alike as being based in local knowledge did not actually reflect the locals’ knowledge.

Local knowledge in earthquake risk reduction

Although flood risk was their focus, Šakić Trogrlić said their findings are important for all kinds of disaster risk reduction policies. “Local knowledge, when it comes to disasters, can literally save lives,” he said.

Elaina Sutley, an expert in disaster risk reduction policy at the University of Kansas and unaffiliated with this work, agrees with him. “I do think local knowledge is critically important across the disaster timeline for all types of hazards. It’s just going to look a little bit different,” she said, depending on the hazard and the community.

In terms of earthquakes, in 2012, a nonprofit in San Francisco called SPUR partnered with local policymakers to publish a report on how to minimize damages from the “next big one.” In particular, residents indicated they were unable or unwilling to leave their buildings after an earthquake, even when their buildings were likely to collapse.

“The big conclusion out of the [SPUR] report was that it was critical for San Francisco to move toward building codes that would allow people to shelter in place during an earthquake,” which was a conclusion based on local knowledge from residents and city officials, said Sutley. From there, the city made changes to building codes, and retrofitted old buildings. These policies then spread to other cities in California.

Photo of row homes with bay windows on an inclined street

Soft story buildings like this one in San Francisco need to be retrofitted to minimize damage from a future earthquake. Credit: City Structural, Inc. (CC BY 2.0)

Because this was a success story in California, Sutley said now people rightfully want to see more use of local knowledge in policy. Unfortunately, policy is frequently driven by those with money and power — people who often face the least risk during and after a disaster, Sutley said. “When we develop solutions that are driven by money, we’re likely going to overlook the people with the greatest needs,” she said, pointing out that the most dangerous buildings in earthquakes are frequently inhabited by people from lower socioeconomic classes who often lack insurance.

The future of local knowledge in policy

To make inclusive policy based on local knowledge, Šakić Trogrlić and Sutley say it is vital to include locals from diverse backgrounds in policy discussions. “If you’re engaging only with the local elite, you will [only] be getting knowledge of the local elite, which means that you will still exclude the vulnerable segments of a community,” said Šakić Trogrlić. Engagement must reach across the entirety of the community.

“Opening space for extensive and meaningful community consultations when forming the policies,” said Šakić Trogrlić, will be the most productive way to co-produce new policies. In practice, this can look like talking to locals about how they prepare for disasters and what they will need after a disaster strikes, and then developing policy that directly incorporates these needs. Šakić Trogrlić believes that through these collaborations, policy can “get the best from what local knowledge has to offer, and best from what science has to offer.”

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Hazards Earthquake
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