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How Indigenous Knowledge Is Changing Natural Hazard Mitigation

Indigenous cultures have developed efficient ways to protect their communities from natural disasters — emergency managers can incorporate these methods into the planning process.

by Andrew Stevens / August 31, 2009
U.S. Global Change Research Program

All around the world natural disasters continue to wreak havoc as emergency managers strive for new ways to reduce the damage through sound mitigation practices. At the same time, several indigenous cultures have developed, over time, highly successful and efficient ways to protect themselves and their communities from risks posed by Mother Nature.
Using passed-down legends and keen observations of their native environments, these cultures have proven that indigenous knowledge of natural disasters not only works, but should be incorporated throughout the emergency planning process. Once these practices are accepted and adopted, emergency managers will discover that many of these practices easily translate to other communities facing similar threats, and that certain factors of emergency planning, such as risk communications, grow considerably easier.


Early Warning System

In 2004, off the coast of Sumatra, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that resulted in nearly 300,000 deaths and widespread destruction in 11 different countries, some as far away as Africa. Waves that reached up to 50 feet decimated entire villages, washed away entire families and forever changed the landscape of the once picturesque beach communities. The tsunami’s aftermath created an international cry for the need to create some form of early warning system to give communities living off these coastal regions a chance to prepare themselves against future disasters.
But in the coverage of the 2004 tsunami, the world was introduced to the Moken, a nonliterate nomadic sea culture who reside in the Surin Islands of Thailand, an area ravaged by the tsunami’s waves. What made the Moken so interesting was that not a single individual from the 184-person community was lost during the disaster. By using passed-down folklore and keen observation of their environment, the Moken nomads were able to not only save every member of their community, but also numerous tourists that were in the area.
With more than half of the Moken community under the age of 18, nearly the entire population had never experienced a tsunami but instead relied on folk legends of the “Laboon” or seven roller waves to avoid the tsunami’s destructive wrath. Salama Klatalay, an elder within the Moken community, described the Laboon as, “the god of waves, a furious one that consumes and destroys … and visits once in every two generations.” Using this legend and by observing the changes in the ocean, the Moken retreated to higher ground before the tsunami struck and completely destroyed their coastal villages.
What’s important here is that the lack of early warning systems throughout the Indian Ocean countries was blamed for the extremely large numbers of casualties, but by engraving into the minds of younger generations the legend of the Laboon, the Moken enacted protective actions that saved their entire community without the support of modern alert systems.


Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge Into Risk Communications

Understanding how the individuals may react when faced with a particular hazard is crucial to the success of any emergency management program. A community may have developed the most thorough protective action plans imaginable, but if the emergency planners involved have not developed an effective risk communication program then the individuals of the community may choose not to comply with the recommended actions. For example, when dealing with certain Native American cultures, emergency managers must present mitigation measures as a way to avoid potential hazards and not prepare for them; this comes from a belief that by preparing for a disaster you in fact make it occur. By not being conscious of these cultural beliefs, an emergency manager may render any protective action plan in place useless.
By incorporating many of the indigenous practices that certain cultures utilize in reducing threats posed by natural hazards, the emergency planners involved can be reassured that the recommended protective actions are accepted by the threatened communities involved. In fact, according to research conducted by United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR) one of the main reasons for incorporating indigenous knowledge is that it, “encourages the participation of the affected community and empowers its members to take the leading role in all disaster risk reduction activities.”
This is especially important because by taking the lead role in risk reduction, the community involved builds source credibility that’s extremely vital to protective action compliance. Through this combination, communities have been shown to create highly successful hazard mitigation programs that reduce or all but eliminate the threats posed by any multitude of natural hazards found throughout the globe.


A History of Proven Effectiveness in Mitigating Natural Hazards

Emergency managers couldn’t be expected to incorporate the local indigenous knowledge if research had not shown these methods to be successful. Surely if the practices of certain cultures are grossly affecting proper disaster mitigation then the emergency planner should find other ways to present the recommended protective actions.
The good news, however, is that many of the indigenous practices already in effect have been proven to be highly successful in disaster mitigation, and this knowledge can be easily incorporated in emergency management programs or transferred to other communities that face similar natural hazards.
Brian Ward, the former director of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, summed up the efficiency of indigenous knowledge when he said, “the farmers in Bangladesh are 15 years ahead of the Ph.D.s.” From folk legends passed down through oral traditions, to keen observations of the plant and animal world, the following case studies show that indigenous knowledge of natural disasters is saving lives throughout the world.


Kanungkong Flood Warning System

Demonstrating a perfect blend of indigenous traditions and modern hazard mitigation practices, eight villages throughout the flood prone region of the Pangasinan Province, northwestern Philippines, have adopted the use of the Kanungkong — a bamboo communication device — to warn citizens of rising floodwaters. A 2008 study by Lorna Victoria, of the UN/ISDR, described how the incorporation of a device, the bamboo Kanungkong, which was traditionally used to gather village residents to public meetings or to signal a woman’s need for help during labor, was now shown to be a highly effective flood early warning system.
With aid from the Program for Hydro-Meteorological Disaster Mitigation in Secondary Cities in Asia or PROMISE, the residents of the Pangasinan villages established the warning system, which consists of auditory alarms from the Kanungkong that coincide with different levels of alertness similar to the color-coded threat matrix used within America. This alarm system, combined with modern staff, gauges and radio communications to signal rising waters from the City Disaster Coordinating Council (CDCC), proved highly effective during the 2007 monsoon season.
The residents of the villages were trained to give the Kanungkong early warnings. These in turn were signaled to be given by the CDCC as the flood waters rose, and all of the citizens of the villages had adequate time to prepare their homes against the floods. This proves that even the simplest form of indigenous hazard mitigation can be highly effective in reducing loss.


Indigenous Knowledge and the Future

The above case studies have shown the effectiveness of incorporating the indigenous knowledge of local populations into the hazard mitigation process. Sometimes this blending utilizes the legends and folklores already present within certain cultures to further educate the local citizens to the dangers posed by natural hazards. Other times it’s the simple incorporation of indigenous tools, such as the Kanungkong — a device already in practice but given the new task of warning populations of rising flood waters.
Whatever the situation proves to be, in every case the emergency managers involved were able to gain a much greater understanding as to how the indigenous populations would react during actual incidents. The blending of modern mitigation practices and indigenous traditions empowered the native populations to take protective actions, promoted credibility within the emergency management community, and in the end saved lives and greatly reduced the losses gained through each disaster event.
Throughout the world it’s now clear that the incorporation of indigenous knowledge of natural disasters into modern mitigation practices is a benefit not only to the emergency managers tasked with constructing disaster mitigation plans, but the countless other lives these practices will save from future disasters.

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