Integrating Traditional Knowledge in DRR Planning

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John C. Scott is President of the Center for Public Service Communications and has been advocating and lobbying for Indigenous Peoples Disaster Risk Reduction for many years, including within the UN, where he recently oversaw the launch of the International Campaign for DRR in Indigenous Communities. He is also a coordinator with the Indigenous Knowledge and Disaster Risk Reduction Network.



How can Traditional Knowledges help reduce disaster risk?

From oral traditions that saved tens of thousands of lives in the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, to flood early warning systems that protect lives and property in West Bengal, there are countless examples of Traditional Knowledges that reduce disaster risk.

But responding to this question is not quite so simple, said John C. Scott, President of the Center for Public Service Communications and a long-time advocate for Indigenous Peoples and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR).

“There’s a lot of background and baggage that needs to be unpacked before that question can be answered,” John said.

Pointing out the scale and scope of historical and contemporary policies and practices that continue to marginalize Indigenous Peoples everywhere, John said:

“Throughout the world, colonizers and their successors have reaped the fruits of their dominance -- opportunity, security, freedom, and prosperity. The term “structural racism” is often used to describe this,” he said.

John cuts no corners in identifying the role privileged communities play in enforcing a singular word view. It is through intentional oppression, he says, ignorance or benign neglect that have persisted in marginalizing Indigenous Peoples – or anyone else, for that matter, whose culture and worldview is different from their own.

“Over time and at an increasing rate, the imposition of outside development is adversely affecting the environment of Indigenous People, restricting traditional risk reduction practices and, at times, making Indigenous knowledges irrelevant.”

The result is few Indigenous communities within which natural hazard risk reduction practices based on these cultural belief systems can be practiced.

“Implementing significant risk reduction strategies require freedoms that are not available to many marginalized Indigenous communities,” said John.


Indigenous Knowledge and Disaster Risk Reduction Network: empowering and engaging Indigenous communities in DRR


As a coordinator with the Indigenous Knowledge and Disaster Risk Reduction Network, which is devoted to sharing information between and among Indigenous communities, health and DRR experts, John has rich experience bringing diverse groups together to collaborate on common risk-related challenges.

“The Network provides opportunities for sharing and, importantly, collecting and preserving disaster health information relevant to Indigenous communities.”

But he is also quick to mention its limitations:

“As with many similar efforts, it is only as strong and active as its participants and, historically, Indigenous communities do not have adequate access to internet and other communications technologies to take full advantage of its potential.”

“The challenge moving forward will always be how to empower vulnerable communities more directly,” he added.


Towards better integration of Traditional Knowledge in DRR


So, how can Traditional Knowledges help reduce disaster risk?

“It’s not rocket science,” said John. “As with all underserved communities Traditional Knowledge can be better integrated in DRR by involving Indigenous Peoples in the processes of developing plans and policies.”

Supporting opportunities to enhance capacity within Indigenous communities to improve access to education and training so that Indigenous decision-makers will have equal footing when policies and plans are determined is extremely important, noted John.

With respect to disaster preparedness, mitigation, prevention, and longer-term risk reduction objectives, John advises that governments and DRR practitioners take advantage of the experience and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples – local time-tested practices, which have arisen from a close relationship with the environment, cultural beliefs, or the common sense of the community.

“These should be included in planning and policy development,” he said. “Ideally, this bridge-building would take place in collaboration with respected community leaders through participatory capacity assessment and horizontal planning.”

And rather than impose top-down processes, communities must be involved in the outlining of their own DRR strategies:

“It is important to respect the culture of the community affected. Successful disaster risk reduction planning cannot be built without engaging the people themselves – and ensuring that the strategies agreed upon remain their own.”


Additional Reading

  1. Five risk-reduction strategies updated with age-old knowledge (July 2022)
    Part the GAR 2022 report, the article focuses on five indigenous practices that use traditional knowledge, alongside modern techniques, to help manage disaster risk.



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