Using Folklore in Planning: Integrating Traditional Knowledge in Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation

On Saturday 14th March, Japan will host the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). One of the objectives is to adopt a post-2015 framework for DRR, the successor to the 2005-15 Hyogo Framework for Action. This commentary addresses the relevance of the grassroots level for this high-level debate by focusing on the importance of integrating traditional knowledge in DRR, particularly for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that are facing increasing disaster risks as a result of climate change.

Traditional knowledge comprises the dynamic and complex understanding, skills and philosophies that are generated by people’s interaction with their social and natural environment. This is consistent with the definitions by the Convention on Biological Diversity, UNESCO, and other researchers. More specifically, traditional knowledge involves the observation of changes in hydro-meteorological conditions and animal behaviors,folklores, rituals and ceremonies, and food storage and preservation.

It is applied by communities’ day-to-day encounters with climate change and their DRR activities. SIDS in particular are culturally diverse societies. Their historic isolation has enabled traditional knowledge to flourish, particularly in becoming self-sufficient and self-resilient. Consequently, their traditional knowledge systems aredeeply rooted and highly complex.

The Hyogo Framework acknowledges traditional knowledge as an importance source of innovation and education for safety and resilience building. Nevertheless, traditional knowledge has not always been adequately integrated in mainstream planning for climate change adaptation and DRR.

What does integration mean? For a start, it requires a connection between traditional knowledge and mainstream scientific knowledge. DRR and adaptation tend to focus on infrastructure development and high-technology solutions. These measures, if not properly informed and designed, can create a ‘lock-in’ effect where SIDS are stuck in a path to higher vulnerability despite possible short-term gains. The flipside is also true – traditional knowledge is sometimes not informed by mainstream science. Research found that environmental decision-making in peripheral areas of the remote islands of Kiribati and Vanuatu was almost fully detached from global environmental agendas.

A review by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change found that there are indeed efforts to better understand traditional knowledge and to integrate with scientific knowledge. Nonetheless, there are no guarantees that traditional knowledge generated by public participation in adaptation planning is taken into consideration. Traditional knowledge is also not yet recognized in current tools and modalities for adaptation planning, implementation and monitoring and evaluation.

There are at least two main obstacles to integration. First, traditional knowledge is under threat as it tends to rely on oral communication, which is not sufficient in reaching populations that are spread over remote areas or younger generations who are at the same time losing respect for such knowledge while increasing their confidence in mainstream science. A brain-drain through emigration can also prevent the retention of traditional knowledge.

A second obstacle is the unwillingness and inability exhibited by some scientists to use traditional knowledge as data, based on the assumption that such knowledge will not lead to rigorous and robust scientific findings. The converse is also true, as holders of traditional knowledge may refuse to share their insights with mainstream scientists.

Towards increased integration, research reveals some principles of best practice. First, we need to identify the traditional knowledge that is relevant for DRR and adaptation. This requires in-depth understanding of who the persons with the most relevant knowledge are. This is a task to be done by an insider from the community itself, with external financial or capacity building support. By collaborating with local communities, they are not simply ‘given a fish and fed for a day’ but can reduce the disaster risks and their effects over the long-term.

Second, we cannot separate obtaining knowledge from raising awareness among communities of the benefits of possessing and sharing knowledge. Reciprocity through continuous feedback loops is necessary to give the communities ownership of any initiative. This is particularly important in promoting the long-term benefits, which are perhaps not immediately clear for communities who may be more concerned about meeting everyday needs.

Third and linked to awareness raising, we need to document traditional knowledge. This is already taking place to some extent in Pacific SIDS and among indigenous communities in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. A seasonal calendar is an example of documentation. Another example is the Climate Witness projectby the World Wildlife Fund. The latter collects observations of climate change impacts by local community members, which are then reviewed, contextualized and analyzed by scientists.

These examples demonstrate how traditional knowledge can help scientists establish reference points for identifying and monitoring climate change, and contribute to the development of context-specific research questions, hypotheses and frameworks for cross-location comparisons, and indicators for resilience.

Traditional knowledge is not a panacea for the risk of disasters or climate change impacts and this commentary has argued that it needs to be integrated carefully with mainstream science. The unprecedented scale and speed of climate change and globalization in SIDS require the adaptation of traditional knowledge. Furthermore, not all traditional knowledge leads to positive outcomes for DRR and adaptation but rather sometimes induces actions aimed at generating personal gains at the expense of environmental resilience. In any case, we should avoid a zero-sum game between traditional knowledge and mainstream scientific knowledge and integrate the two as much as possible.

Towards more effective integration, the recently launched project by The Hague Institute on the governance of adaptation in SIDS will test the hypothesis that local adaptation efforts (based on traditional knowledge) can be effective but not sustainable or cost-effective unless complemented by scientific knowledge. In particular, the project will use satellite data, maps, old photographs, and data on sedimentation, waves and so on combined with local ‘storytelling’ in order to identify strategies for climate change adaptation.

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