Reducing disaster risk
you scan a newspaper or watch the news on television, you will come
across at least two news items from around the world on natural
disasters. From a landslide in Guatemala to floods in China (and in Sri
Lanka itself), natural disasters occur all over the world. Thousands of
people die each year around the world in natural disasters. While it is
not always possible to prevent natural disasters, we can sometimes
minimize the loss of lives and property if precautionary and preventive
measures are taken.
The best example was the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. It was simply
not possible to prevent the 9.3 earthquake per se - we still do not have
the kind of technology that can predict, leave alone prevent, an
earthquake. But we do have state-of-the-art communications systems. Once
we knew it had happened, we could have evacuated a large number of
people within the two-hour window that generated a massive tsunami,
using those communications channels. But this never happened due to
various factors and around 250,000 people in 11 countries lost their
lives. An early warning system could have saved so many lives.
Disasters do happen, but certain actions can be taken to reduce the
risks associated with natural disasters. To focus on this issue, the UN
General Assembly has designated the second Tuesday or Wednesday of
October as the International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDDR).
This year, it falls on October 13. The objective of the observance is to
raise awareness of how people can take action to reduce their risk to
At the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, the
international community was reminded that disasters hit hardest at the
local level with the potential to cause loss of life and great social
and economic upheaval. "Sudden onset" disasters displace millions of
people every year. In 2014, 19.3 million people were newly displaced by
disasters. Disasters, many of which are exacerbated by climate change,
have a negative impact on investment in sustainable development and the
The world continues to witness more adverse effects of
climate change Pic: www.iop.harvard.edu
The focus of this year's IDDR is on the traditional, indigenous and
local knowledge which complement modern science and add to an
individual's and society's resilience under the theme "Knowledge for
Life". For example, knowledge of early warning signals in nature can be
vital to ensuring early action is taken to mitigate the impact of both
slow and fast onset disasters such as droughts, heat waves, storms and
floods. Combined with scientific knowledge such as reports generated by
satellites and meteorologists, local knowledge is vital for preparedness
and can be passed from generation to generation.
It is well known that most animals have a sixth sense which helps
them avoid natural disasters. Hours before we came to know about the
tsunami on December 26, 2004, animals were running inland to avoid the
incoming tidal wave. They just felt that a major disaster was about to
happen and not a single animal, except for a few dogs chained or caged
in their homes, died in the disaster. It is believed that even humans
and their early ancestors had this sixth sense, but as our brain grew in
size and senses such as sight and hearing dominated in our information
gathering process, we lost this all-important sixth sense. But this very
occasionally surfaces in a very few individuals, who often get a feeling
that something bad is about to happen. All others have to rely more on
electronic weather aids.
But there is a more practical aspect - traditional knowledge of
weather and disasters. For example, we all know that if the sun is very
harsh in the morning, chances are that it might rain in the evening.
Many of our elders can do much more - they can predict short and long
term weather fairly accurately just by looking at the sky and their
surroundings. This is called traditional knowledge. This knowledge can
be harnessed and incorporated into formal predictions of weather and
disasters. Moreover, in countries with significant indigenous
populations including Sri Lanka, there is a treasure trove of knowledge
on disasters waiting to be tapped and used. More than 370 million people
in 90 countries identify themselves as indigenous. Indigenous peoples'
territories span over 24% of the earth's surface and they manage 80% of
the world's biodiversity.
To give just one example, the indigenous people of Akum, Morocco
anticipate weather changes by observing variations in the colour of the
water in the streams and the behaviour of migratory birds and insects.
No scientific study can match such an astounding understanding of, and
affinity with, Nature. New knowledge and coping strategies are being
generated all the time as communities in hazard prone locations work out
new ways and means to adapt to disaster and climate risk. In many
aspects, indigenous people epitomize the importance of local knowledge
and community-level engagement in disaster risk reduction.
Many traditions, practices and customs which are important to
environmental protection and managing disaster risks are embedded in
thousands of native languages that are threatened with extinction in a
few years. In both rural and urban settings, indigenous people have
unique vulnerabilities and needs in disaster risk reduction and in
Capacities and knowledge
At the same time, indigenous people have unique capacities and
knowledge on natural disasters and climate change. Over several
generations, they have learned from the past to read the present and
predict the future as far as climate is concerned.
As the world continues to witness more adverse effects of climate
change, indigenous knowledge is adapting to this change. Local knowledge
of doing things becomes very important in avoiding famine, disease and
other disasters. This knowledge should be harnessed in an appropriate
Attention will be drawn to this issue at the 21st session of the
Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on
Climate Change - or COP21 that will be organized in Paris from November
30 to December 11, 2015 to discuss a new climate agreement to replace
the existing Kyoto Protocol. Individual countries should consult the
leaders of their indigenous communities and get their inputs on climate
change policies and disaster reduction for incorporation in their work
programme. Such precious knowledge must not be allowed to go unutilized.