Snakes and folk tales meet science in disaster warning
SciDev.Net, 22 November 2012

KATHMANDU, NEPAL: On 26 December 2004, an earthquake off the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra triggered the devastating tsunami that killed around 230,000 people. No official tsunami warning system was in place to prepare countries for the disaster. However, several indigenous communities in Indonesia and Thailand, as well as India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, survived because folk tales they had listened to all their lives alerted them to the dangers of shaking ground and the eerily retreating sea. Snakes and folk tales — coincidence, or experience and knowledge which, linked to the insights of science, can offer people around the world significant protection against disasters? Increasingly, the answer from scientists is: yes, we can learn from indigenous knowledge. Jiba Raj Pokharel, professor of engineering and director of the Centre for Disaster Studies, Nepal, certainly has. He draws many of his ideas for early warning systems from local knowledge, including snake alerts. But it’s not just a matter of taking local knowledge and inserting it into scientific preparedness plans. Traditional knowledge doesn’t always reduce communities’ vulnerability to natural disasters, and may not adapt fast enough to changing social and climatic dynamics, points out London-based risk reduction specialist and co-founder of Secure Futures, Jessica Mercer. And scientific knowledge may ‘clash’ with local understanding of disasters, and thus be rejected by communities. Read the article …

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