Traditional Knowledge and Disaster Resilience of Indigenous Peoples

by Arshad Khan Khalafzai and Jamila Nawaz

Traditional knowledge (TK) can play a critical role in building the disaster resilience of Indigenous people because it can potentially contribute to building resilience to natural hazards risks.

What is Traditional Knowledge?

 Berkes defines TK as “a body of cumulative knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive process, and handed down through generations by cultural transmission about the relationship of living being (including humans) with one another and the environment” (Berkes, 1999; Berkes et al., 2000, p. 1252). His definition signifies the oral traditions of several generations, integrated socioeconomically, culturally and ecologically with a strong spiritual foundation embedded in values, beliefs and practices. TK has cultural and local meaning: for example, in the Canadian context, the ‘Inuit way of doing’ things based on past, present and future knowledge; experiences and values of the Inuit society; or the ‘collective wisdom’ of Cree Indigenous people. TK consist of all the experiences and knowledge of a social group which in essence is a social and mental construction, which guide, organize, and regulate a community’s way of life. While TK has been historically devalued in many fields of scientific and social science research, indigenous-knowledge contributions have also been well documented in many fields—including fields of agro-forestry, traditional medicine, biodiversity conservation, customary resource management, impact assessment, and risk reduction (Nakashima et al., 2012).

Recognition of Traditional Knowledge

Unequal power dynamics between western science and TK have undermined the potential role that traditional knowledge-holders can play as active participants in many fields including DRR. During the colonization and modernization eras, TK and Indigenous values were devalued as an ‘impediment to development’ (Koike and Payyappallimanai, 2010) and early sociologists such as Karl Marx (1867) conceptualized such values and traditions as the ‘idiocy of rural life’ (Layfield, 2008). Contrary to such opposing views, anthropologists have traditionally recognized the value of TK by acknowledging Indigenous peoples’ perspectives as a distinct world view. Furthermore, cultural ecologists also regarded TK as useful and beneficial as they see the knowledge systems and practices emerging from a particular cultural context. Scholars with empirical views such as Fikret Berkes (Scared Ecology: 2008) consider it useful and beneficial.

TK is now widely recognized by and is of interest in many disciplines such as anthropology, geography and ecology (ethnology and ethnobotany). This recognition of TK is evident from the fact that knowledge systems are being legislated (in Canada and internationally) in natural resource management, land-use planning, environmental assessment and understanding, and adapting to climate change as well as mitigating natural hazards risks. The value of such knowledge systems is now widely recognized by scientists, managers, and policy-makers, and is becoming subject of national and international law (Anaya, 1996; Mauro & Hardison, 2000). While scientists are often skeptical of the value of traditional knowledge systems, Scott (1998) asserts that they tend to value it after recasting it in scientific terms, making it more rational, empirical and objective.

Disaster Resilience and Traditional Knowledge

In the face of natural disasters, disaster resilience refers to a community’s ability to survive and deal with events by reducing impacts and sustaining minimum damage. A community’s disaster resilience is seen as proactive and a positive characteristics when dealing with natural disasters. Community resilience building focuses on the adaptive capacity of individuals, households and communities such as people’s resources and their collective strategic action, social networks/capital, and knowledge, skills and learning (Cutter et al., 2008; Berkes & Ross, 2012). Indigenous people’s social networks, organizations and traditional knowledge can play a crucial role in developing adaptation strategies.

For example, Indigenous community location-specific flooding-related TK can guide flood adaptation. In this respect, as 26 percent of Aboriginal peoples still live close to the land,[1] they possess valuable TK that can contribute to their adaptation and resilience (Newton, 1995; Berkes et al., 2000; Norris & Clatworthy, 2011). Similar to TK, Indigenous people’s resources, social institutions/networks, cultural values and attitudes can enhance their adaptive capacity in building disaster resilience (Berkes & Ross, 2012; United Nations University, 2013). Indigenous communities have demonstrated their resilience by surviving increasing number of natural hazards, and socioeconomic issues.

Empirical evidence indicates that Indigenous communities are expected to experience disproportionate impacts due to the changing climate and increasing natural hazards; this claim is consistent with recent climatic events, their increased frequency and intensity across the globe (Newton et al., 2005; Lynn et al., 2012). In addition, the authors’ professional experience also suggests that the changing climate, its ensuing natural events and impacts have been unevenly affecting local communities elsewhere. Their intensity is also expected to increase keeping in mind projected global warming. The unevenness and severity of the impacts are fundamental because of the interconnectedness, interdependence and complexity of the natural environment and systems and varying levels of vulnerability, resilience and adaptive capacity of Indigenous communities.

The concepts of resilience, vulnerability and adaptation are interrelated. Vulnerability, for example, also resides in the resilience of the system that experiences a hazard. Resilience is also important for vulnerability because it helps assess hazards holistically in the context of human-environment systems, emphasizes people’s adaptive capacity and is forward-looking (Berkes, 2007; Gaillard, 2007; Maru et al., 2014). Similarly, the resilience of a community can be determined by the condition of vulnerability as well as adaptive capacity. People’s adaptive capacity contributes to reducing their vulnerability to hazards (Nelson et al., 2007). Furthermore, adaptation and resilience overlap with adaptive capacity because adaptive capacity helps to build people’s resilience. Adaptation and resilience are positively correlated while having an inverse relationship with vulnerability. In a nutshell, a community’s resilience is enhanced through improvement in their adaptive capacity.

TK is evolving all the time. It involves adaptive management or learning-by-doing, experimenting, and knowledge-building; the evolving process depends upon community members’ ability to constantly observe the climate and environmental changes occurring around them. Such observations have been crucial for climate history, community adaptation, and community-based DRM (CBDRM). The resurgence of dormant traditional adaptive capacities will not only reduce the vulnerabilities and risk exposure of Indigenous communities: it will also contribute to enhancing their disaster resilience. TK may not necessarily fit with every scientific model; however, more in-depth research is warranted to identify points of convergence where indigenous knowledge may help improve the disaster resilience of Indigenous peoples.


Arshad Khan is a DRR/M[1] practitioner and has 24 years of experience in the fields of DRR/M, and socioeconomic and human development. Presently, he is pursuing his Ph.D. degree at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. His research focuses on ice break-up and jamming-related flooding on a First Nation Reserve in northern Ontario, Canada.

Jamila has been actively contributing in the fields of DRR and has completed several projects since 2007. Presently she is working for the Oxfam G.B Pakistan Program as Manager, DRR and Climate Change.

[1] Disaster risk reduction (DRR) and disaster risk management (DRM).


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[1] According to Norris and Clatworthy (2011), as of 2006, 26 percent Aboriginal peoples are living on Reserves in Canada.