Indigenous Knowledge in Disaster Risk Management

Sher Wali

The term indigenous knowledge encompasses a combination of traditional practices, beliefs and other cultural parameters. These sets of parameters become an integral part of a society’s function over a period of existence. However, with the passage of time the indigenous knowledge loses its use when there is a competition between the new and old technologies in a society, and when the old and new generation develops gaps.

In the traditional societies there was a lack of technology and scientific tools and, thus, indigenous knowledge played a pivotal role in anticipating natural events. The indigenous practices lost their relevance, or were looked down at, with the advent of more sophisticated devices and process, with greater impact and accuracy, especially with regard to anticipation of natural risks.

However, these days the social and natural scientists, both, are convinced that in many matters there is a need of integrating the indigenous knowledge into the modern scientific approaches, to anticipate natural hazards more effectively. Therefore, in the fast growing risks of natural disasters worldwide, the mechanism of disaster management is studied by many experts, and has come to the conclusion that indigenous knowledge is one of the key parameters for developing early warning systems (EWS), for disaster risk management.

Risk is calculated by the multiplication of a given hazard and degree of its vulnerability. The more you are vulnerable to any hazard the more you are at risk. The term Vulnerability in disaster management domain is a state of being exposed to a hazard which is natural or manmade. The basic parameters of vulnerability are manifold however lack of awareness and knowledge regarding to hazards and risks, lack of resources and opportunities, poverty and social inequality and lack of access to primary and tertiary services are the primary indicators. Natural hazards are true but as far vulnerability to the hazards is concern, than there is an equal role of human approaches which contribute to increase the risks. Thus a wise and intellectual approach to reduce the impact of a potential hazard is pre-requisite.

Disaster is managed in various ways, but the early information and alert is crucial to avoid any major impact. Therefore in the ancient times communities used indigenous knowledge to forecast the probability of a disaster or any natural hazard through, traditional practices. So we can say that indigenous knowledge is pivotal in risk anticipation and early warning. In the recent times indigenous knowledge is considered as an important indicator to incorporate with the scientific approaches so that to develop an effective early warning mechanism.

However, the indigenous knowledge suggests that in the earlier periods though there was a lack of technology, no print and electronic media was available for early warning of a disaster; the indigenous people used their traditional skills and practices to anticipate the weather systems, rain and snow fall. Based on the so-called practices they prepared emergency food storage, herbal medicines etc. to cope up any natural event. Beside this, there were such beliefs which are used for anticipation of natural hazards e:g when there was a flood the rural people particularly women present milk or milky product and goes to the flood sites as this could reduce the magnitude of flood.

Indigenous knowledge is a strong tool for early warning for such hazards. In the earlier periods accessibility to remote mountainous areas was very difficult and people used such traditional mechanism to communicate the downstream people to aware them any emergency. For instances, if there is a flood from a remote valley people used to burn bushes to flame the smoke higher on a high mountain sides, this signaled downstream people that something might happened upstream and they prepared for evacuation to safer locations. Such cases have been reported during 1905 Karumber valley glacier outburst Flood which had caused a widespread damages along the Ishkoman valley and reached up to Gilgit City by traveling 150km distance. (Hewitt) Similarly, the same method was used in Shimshal GLOF in Hunza valley. There were such myths or beliefs which are used for prediction of rains, floods, drought and diseases. For instances if yaks are coming down areas from the upper  pastures zones during summer or spring it was an indication of rain fall or clouds  and thus people collect their crops from fields to safe them. When there is an extensive rain fall people slaughtered an animal. This is a cultural practice which usually observed during the summer times when there was crop in fields and extensive rain fall can damage the crop, because in the ancient times people were only dependent upon their local wheat production.

 We usually observe that the Mosques & Jamat Khana at such locations which are at high risk of different localized or remote hazards, these are being constructed based on the beliefs that the hazard cannot divert its way towards these secret buildings and thus they feel themselves secure from the impact of such hazards.

The appearance and sounds of some animals and birds are also used as early warning mechanism in earlier times. “Ishqorno” is a Boroshaski name of a brown color bird, which usually appears during winter in snow fall time, when this bird appears the indication is that there is more snow fall. Similarly, another bird is called “Chitrang” these birds are flying in a flock in the sky when these birds flying in flock in the sky after along lasting rainfall the indication is that the sky is now clear and no more rain fall will be happening. By using this indigenous knowledge the locals run their routine activities. Now that the information technology is advance we have TV, newspaper where we can get daily updates of weather forecast and so this indigenous knowledge does not consider so important. But there is still need of such indigenous knowledge to be documented. Because the indigenous knowledge is created from the local indigenous people but by the time when these indigenous people are getting older and passing away, and if the knowledge is not transferred to the next generation the likelihood is that we will lost all our precious knowledge. Therefore the Unite nation has decided to celebrate the day of Indigenous people every year on 9th August. Unite Nation Environmental Program (UNEP) is implementing many projects to document indigenous knowledge and making it a tool for disaster management. It is equally important for us to document our own indigenous knowledge and use them for early warning system for natural hazards.

The contributor is a geographer. He can be emailed at sherwali.geographer@gmail.com

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  1. Great Sher Wali! eye catching writing! indeed, there is key role of indigenous knowledge in risk reduction, so we should document such knowledge to improve our understanding regarding Disaster management!

  2. Thank you Mr. Sher Wali for sharing unique, attractive and fruitful knowledge … in fact, old is gold, nice click. keep it up.

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