Traditional knowledge of disaster

Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Project Overview

Environmental disasters affect communities asymmetrically, and rural, indigenous, and subsistence-based populations are typically among the most vulnerable (Freeman 2000, Cutter et al. 2008b, Cutter et al. 2003, Wisner 2003). Indigenous communities with long histories of disasters cope with and productively manage destruction and change by developing adaptive capacities, skills, and knowledge. These collectively are a type of traditional ecological knowledge (hereafter referred to as disaster-TEK) gained through the historically evolving relationship between everyday life, landscape and the realities of disaster (Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2012, Mercer et al. 2010).  

Disaster-TEK is increasingly recognized as a critical component of advancing disaster risk reduction and management (Mercer et al. 2010). There have been widespread calls for disaster-TEK documentation (Wisner 2003, Altieri and Nicholls 2013, Rautela 2005) and the proliferation of frameworks for its collection and documentation (Cutter et al. 2008a, Mercer et al. 2010). Because the Himalaya has long been considered a hotspot for multiple forms of disaster risks, primarily related to seismic events, flooding and climate change, several disaster-TEK-type studies have integrated traditional knowledge and experience into regional disaster relief and management (Jigyasu 2002, Rautela 2005).

We aim to document disaster-TEK (including knowledge of disasters and disaster-induced environmental change) of indigenous and smallholder communities affected by the 2015 Nepal earthquakes. The series of shocks and aftershocks that hit central Nepal in early spring caused about 9,000 deaths, 23,000 injuries and the destruction of 600,000 family homes (National Planning Commission 2015). Damages amounted to over one-third of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and mid-montane farming communities near the epicenters of these shocks were devastated. This work builds on previous ethnographic surveying conducted by the research team in 2015 and 2016 that examined community resilience and agricultural systems in earthquake-affected communities (Epstein et al. forthcoming).

We have two rationale for this project. First, we aim to collect and record the everyday experiences of communities, especially poor and socially marginalized people who are highly vulnerable to disaster events (Wisner et al. 2013). To the best of our knowledge, the ecological knowledge and collective history of these groups with respect to the 2015 earthquakes has yet to be recorded. Documenting and analyzing endogenous understandings, coping mechanisms, and adaptation strategies may provide insight into ways of improving outcomes for marginalized communities in the face of disaster. Second, rural mountain communities in Nepal are undergoing unprecedented change: traditional ways of life in Nepal's mountain communities are becoming increasingly globalized (Sharma et al. 2013), (while at the same time), montane environments are subject to high rates of environmental and climatic change (Marty 2009). Our previous research suggests that the earthquake and other disaster events may accelerate this shift. As changes to indigenous mountain communities are widespread, documenting traditional ways of life and knowledge of the environment is a current international priority (UNEP 2008, UNISDR 2015). We believe the deliverables of this project will thus provide insights into ways to increase the capacities of marginalized and disaster-prone communities worldwide while also documenting and preserving a rapidly changing way of life and livelihood in rural mountain communities of the Himalaya.