Indigenous knowledge in natural disaster reduction in Africa

by James Kamara

In Africa, local communities had well-developed traditional indigenous knowledge systems for environmental management and coping strategies, making them more resilient to environmental change. This knowledge had, and still has, a high degree of acceptability amongst the majority of populations in which it has been preserved. These communities can easily identify with this knowledge and it facilitates their understanding of certain modern scientifi c concepts for environmental management including disaster prevention, preparedness, response and mitigation.

Indigenous knowledge is a precious national resource that can facilitate the process of disaster prevention, preparedness and response in cost-effective, participatory and sustainable ways. Hence a blend of approaches and methods from science and technology and from traditional knowledge opens avenues towards better disaster prevention, preparedness, response and mitigation.

Globally, there is increasing acknowledgement of the relevance of indigenous knowledge as an invaluable and underused knowledge reservoir, which presents developing countries, particularly Africa, with a powerful asset in environmental conservation and natural disaster management. Specifically, from time immemorial, natural disaster management in Africa has been deeply rooted in local communities which apply and use indigenous knowledge to master and monitor climate and other natural systems and establish early warning indicators for their own benefi t and future generations.

In the traditional African worldview, environmental resources (land, water, animals and plants) are not just production factors with economic signifi cance but also have their place within the sanctity of nature1. Certain places have a special spiritual signifi cance and are used as locations for rituals and sacrifi ces, for example, sacred grooves, shrines, mountains and rivers. These locations are quite often patches of high biodiversity which are well conserved and protected by the community. For the traditional people of Northern Ghana, gods, spirits, shrines, ritual crops and animals, food items and cash crops are all inter-related2.

Indigenous knowledge is therefore an essential element in the development process and the livelihoods of many local communities. A major challenge that African countries continue to face is how to reconcile indigenous knowledge and modern science without substituting each other, respecting the two sets of values, and building on their respective strengths3. Recent studies in Kenya on the application and use of traditional knowledge in environmental conservation and natural disaster management cited examples of areas where such knowledge is still prevalent and harnessed4.

Regarding land-use conservation, shifting cultivation was a traditional practice in which land was never over used or repeatedly cultivated season after season and year after year. Land was left to rest and covered again with plants and leaves to enable it to accumulate vegetable manure. Mixed crop cultivation practice enables leguminous crops to restore nitrogen in the soil for other food plants. Knowledge of when to expect long or short rainy seasons enables the farmers to plan appropriately which crop is suited for a particular season. Traditional indigenous knowledge terminologies of types of soil and their reaction to water enables the people to use each type of soil appropriately by planting the correct crops.

As for coping with changes in the weather, traditional indigenous knowledge of storm routes and wind patterns enables people to design their disaster management long in advance by constructing types of shelter, wind break structures, walls, and homestead fences appropriately. A hydrological disaster is obviously unmanageable when it starts. Similarly, knowledge of local rain corridors enables them to prepare for storms. Knowing the colour of clouds that may carry hailstones enables people to run for cover. Knowing that prolonged drought is followed by storm, thunder and lightening during the fi rst few rains enables people to prepare or expect a disaster. A change in birds’ cries or the onset of their mating period indicates a change of season.

Similar application and use of indigenous knowledge for disaster management is also prevalent in Swaziland. Floods can be predicted from the height of birds’ nests near rivers. Moth numbers can predict drought. The position of the sun and the cry of a specifi c bird on trees near rivers may predict onset of the rainy season for farming. The presence of certain plant species (for example, Ascolepis capensis) indicates a low water table5.

These examples underscore the importance of harnessing indigenous knowledge not only as a precious national resource but also as a vital element in environmental conservation and natural disaster prevention, preparedness and response.

However, despite the prevalent application and use of indigenous knowledge by local communities, it has not been harnessed to fi t into the current scientifi c framework for environmental conservation and natural disaster management in Africa. As a result, there is a general lack of information and understanding of the need to integrate or mainstream indigenous knowledge into scientifi c knowledge systems for sustainable development in the continent. To achieve this integration would require a blend of approaches and methods from science and technology and from indigenous knowledge.

Recently UNEP initiated a project in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Swaziland to harness and promote the use of indigenous knowledge in environmental conservation and natural disaster management through training and access to and exchange of information. The information collected and analysed through the project is expected to enhance understanding of the need to integrate indigenous knowledge in development processes for poverty and disaster risk reduction as well as in fostering involvement of all constituents including the local communities. The project should be seen as part of a new interest in traditional African knowledge systems which are still prevalent despite the numerous interruptions by development interventionists. It is hoped that the project will be replicated in more countries in Africa and other regions of the world.

James Kamara is Acting Chief of the Disaster Management Branch of UNEP’s Division of Environmental Policy Implementation.

1. David Millar, Interface Two Knowledge Systems: Local Knowledge and Science in Africa. 2. op cit 3. R. Rengalakshmi, Linking Traditional and Scientifi c Knowledge Systems on Climate Prediction and Utilization. 4. A.B.C. Ocholla Ayayo, Application and Use of Indigenous Knowledge in Natural Resources Conservation and Hydrological Disaster Management in Nyanza, Kenya. 5. Oluwole O.G. Amusan, The Status of the Application and Use of Indigenous Knowledge in Natural Resource Conservation and Hydrological Disaster Management in Swaziland.

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