Snakes & Folk Tales Meet Science In Disaster Warning

Indigenous knowledge and science often seem poles apart, but meshing them can curb disaster risk, reports Smriti Mallapaty.

AsianScientist (Nov. 26, 2012) – In a poem about an earthquake that killed thousands of people in Nepal and India in 1934, Nepali folk poet Lok Nath Pokharel described the conspicuous and widespread death of snakes, despite the earthquake occurring in the winter when snakes usually hibernate.

Four decades on, in 1975, people living in and around the city of Haicheng, in northeast China, noticed an unseasonal increase in the number of snakes. Three months later, an earthquake struck.

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.

Among them, the Moken (or Morgan) people living on Surin Island, 55 kilometers off the Thai coast, recognized these signs as indicating the impending arrival of giant and deadly waves known as “seven rollers.” They consequently fled to higher ground, and all survived.

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 Center for Disaster Studies, Nepal, certainly has. He draws many of his ideas for early warning systems from local knowledge, including snake alerts.

Pokharel proposes constructing snake yards across the Terai plains that run parallel to the lower ranges of the Himalayas. Diurnal and nocturnal snakes would be used to signal earthquakes, which are expected in the near future, after an 80-year lull.

A two-pronged approach

“In disaster management, particularly for earthquakes, I have focused on indigenous knowledge that looks at the behavior of animals, because conventional science has not been able to develop an early warning system,” says Pokharel.

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.

“People have died as a result of depending on spirits or cultural stories,” and ignoring warnings from scientists, says Mercer. For example, before an eruption of the Mount Merapi volcano in Indonesia, official evacuation orders based on detailed scientific monitoring clashed with the advice of the volcano’s spiritual gatekeeper, Mbah Marijan.

Marijan had received no premonition of a volcanic eruption. Residents therefore thought it unnecessary to abandon their homes and livestock, and instead chose to stay. Mbah Marijan was later killed in a 2010 eruption, having insisted on remaining close to Merapi.

Therefore “the most effective strategies from each [knowledge base] need to be identified to generate a ‘safety culture,’ as opposed to relying on one knowledge base alone to reduce risk among ‘at-risk’ communities,” suggests a paper by Mercer and her colleagues, published in Environmental Hazards in January.

For Mercer, an important turning point for reforming risk reduction strategies was the 2004 tsunami. Among disaster risk reduction specialists, the tsunami sparked interest in indigenous knowledge, with a focus on integrating indigenous knowledge with modern science, she says. Mercer has now developed a theoretical framework to “combine and integrate the best of both worlds.”

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