Early Warning

Can indigenous knowledge reduce climate disaster risk?

Posted on 17 November 2009. Filed under: Early Warning, Environment |

Borana nomadic people fetch water from a dam near the border between Kenya and Ethiopia on July 12,2008. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna

I have just spent three weeks in Northern Kenya among the Borana people, followed by three weeks in Mindanao, southern Philippines, partly with the Higaonan tribe. Vastly different countries yet I was immediately struck by the similarities in the challenges the communities faced, including drought, conflict, floods and general environmental degradation. In my discussions with the indigenous communities I wondered how they had survived in the past to change with their environment and why they appeared less able to cope today? The answer lies in the richness of indigenous knowledge. Indigenous communities had and still have knowledge that enables them to adapt to environmental change. Indigenous knowledge can help reduce vulnerability and that is something we need to take into account as we develop strategies to reduce risk.


“Our knowledge helps us to cope. We have strong community support and an early warning system which helps us be prepared,” reported one Filipino living in a flood- and conflict-affected area in northern Mindanao. “We used to be able to cope with the effects of drought … they were not so bad before,” said a Borana pastoralist struggling to keep his livestock alive in northern Kenya. Indigenous knowledge is still relevant, but we need to be careful not to over-romanticise it. As the Kenyan I spoke with suggests, indigenous knowledge is perhaps less relevant in the context of an increased pace of change being experienced today, which could be due to worsening environmental degradation or climate change. Climate change is affecting many indigenous communities throughout the world. Environmental degradation resulting from inappropriate human activity is also a major threat. For example, the loss of traditional farming techniques can lead to damage as families adopt modern techniques that are seen as more sophisticated but are perhaps not suited to the specific context. So given all these threats and pressures upon indigenous communities to ‘change’, the big question is: Can indigenous knowledge still help reduce disaster risk now and in the future? The fact that indigenous communities have survived for centuries in hazardous environments suggests it can. So why are we not utilising this rich indigenous knowledge within international efforts to reduce disaster risk? The loss, misuse of and general disregard for indigenous knowledge is partly the fault of ‘science’. We in the West have been quick to dismiss indigenous knowledge as inferior and insignificant.


Communities need to be empowered to recognise the importance of their knowledge and how it could contribute to reducing disaster risk and adapting to climate change. The Borana people, for instance, believe the behaviour of their cattle can forecast drought. Bulls that bellow or run from their herd indicate dry times ahead; cows kicking their water troughs suggest rain within three days. The Borana also have traditional methods of storing and preserving food, and their in-depth knowledge of the environment enables them to identify which seasonal rivers are flowing and what water sources will be full in times of hardship. During times of hardship community elders also ban all traditional activities such as marriage and circumcision ceremonies in order that all community resources go into surviving the drought. An informal traditional loaning system exists in which families may loan a milking cow to those less fortunate or in need in order to see them through the hard period. The Higaonan, similarly, use terracing and indigenous plants to stabilize soil to reduce the risk of landslides, as well as building houses on stilts to reduce the risk of flooding. Not all such knowledge may be applicable, effective or appropriate as these communities confront climate change. The importance of ‘science’ in reducing disaster risk also needs to be recognised.


One answer may be an integration of the most appropriate indigenous knowledge with the most effective and culturally compatible scientific knowledge. Too often in the past, disaster risk reduction strategies have failed due to their inability to fit the local context. Combining local knowledge and science may be a way to overcome such problems and deal with the effects of climate change. Can indigenous knowledge address climate change impacts and reduce disaster risk? Yes. But it must be combined with other knowledge and used in the broader context of sustainable development.

Written by Jessica Mercer, a disaster risk reduction adviser to CAFOD, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development.

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