News from the CRC

Indigenous communities use local knowledge to reduce the risk of disasters

Indigenous communities use local knowledge to reduce the risk of disasters
Indigenous communities use local knowledge to reduce the risk of disasters
Release date
04 Mar 2016
More information:
David Bruce
Communications Manager

Knowledge for life

This article first appeared in the Summer 2015/2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine. By Freya Jones.

There are many ways for a community to reduce their risk of being impacted by hazards and disasters. Science and research play an important role, but for many remote and Indigenous communities they cannot provide all of the solutions. Local knowledge, while often overlooked, can be pivotal to disaster reduction, particularly in remote communities. In an effort to start a much-needed conversation around this, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC hosted a panel of speakers at the Australasian Natural Hazards Management conference in Perth as part of the 2015 International Day for Disaster Reduction.

Focusing on the theme Knowledge for Life, the day aimed to raise awareness of traditional, local and Indigenous knowledge and practices that complement the current science and research in the field and add to the resilience of both societies and individuals. The idea for the International Day for Disaster Reduction was conceived in 1989 by the United Nations as a way to promote a global culture and awareness of disaster reduction, prevention, mitigation and preparedness. Since 2009 it has taken place annually on 13 October.  

Now in its second year, the CRC is reinvigorating the International Day for Disaster Reduction in Australia to ensure it remains on the national agenda. This year the day was marked with a panel session at the 8th Australasian Natural Hazards Management conference which was held at University of Western Australia, Perth from 13-14 October. Bringing disaster risk reduction back to the forefront of conversation, the discussion focused on local and traditional knowledge and practices during disasters as well as the partnerships needed to work with remote communities.

Panel members at the 2015 International Day for Disaster Reduction event in Perth
Panel members at the 2015 International Day for Disaster Reduction event in Perth

The panel comprised Professor Carmen Lawrence from the University of Western Australia, Erin Fuery, State Manager of Emergency Services in Western Australia at the Australian Red Cross and Anne Garland, Research Associate of Applied Research in Environmental Sciences Non-profit in the United States.

Ms Fuery has spent time working with indigenous and remote communities in Western Australia and reflected on the key lessons learned in these communities following a disaster. She explained that Red Cross take a place-based approach when working in these communities.

“This involves partnering Red Cross emergency services work with our community services program, who are already on the ground delivering programs to communities at regional locations,” she said.

Ms Fuery noted the importance of understanding local knowledge and how it can limit the impact of disasters and help to improve the recovery journey. She believes it is crucial for emergency services to work together with the local community in the aftermath of a disaster.

“In terms of finding solutions to some of these problems, it is about partnerships, it is about working with the community to find out what they need and being a facilitator to find the people who can find the solutions for them,” she said.

“By partnering with community programs [we] help to ensure that emergency programs are relevant, culturally appropriate and sustainable,” Ms Fuery said.

Prof Lawrence has been conducting research on community perceptions of risk when experiencing hazards. She explained that our perceptions of risk play a big role in how we prepare for disasters. Part of her research involved a large-scale national survey about how communities understand risks, undertaken through the Bushfire CRC from 2010 to 2013.

“What we found were clear differences between communities and within those communities [there were] individuals who were better and less prepared. The communities who were best prepared and the individuals who were best prepared both had elevated perceptions of risk,” she said.

The results of the survey demonstrated that those who had first-hand experience with bushfires or had participated in community groups dealing with bushfires were more likely to take action.

“That participatory element was critical, communities that did not have it did not prepare very well.”

Prof Lawrence also discovered that there were clear differences in approaches to disaster reduction and preparation between those who live on the urban fringes of our cities and towns and people in rural areas.

“People on the urban fringe have this view that someone else is going to do it, whereas people in the country tend to roll up their sleeves and do it together,” she said.

Having worked with remote communities in Barrow, located right on the northern tip of Alaska, Anne Garland noted that these issues are not confined to Australia.

“In the Arctic these people are facing hazards they have never had to face before,” she said.

“The city of Barrow has lost about 100 feet of their coastline in the last 30 years.”

The increasing threat of natural disasters places a heavy burden on these remote and often isolated communities, but Ms Garland believes they have a wealth of knowledge in dealing with disasters.

“They have a huge background of resilience and risk understanding,” she said of the Barrow community.

While our environment in Australia is vastly different to Alaska, the issues faced are similar, and there is a lot we can learn from these types of communities, despite the geological differences.

The CRC wants to ensure that through the International Day for Disaster Reduction that both researchers and those working in the field can continue to share their knowledge.

“Our idea behind the International Day for Disaster Reduction is to get people that work in this area to discuss what is happening out in the field, what policy changes are being considered and what new thinking is being brought to this area,” explained CRC Research Manager, Dr Michael Rumsewicz.

“This is not a conversation that stops now, it has to continue.” Mr Rumsewicz elaborated, “There is a lot of knowledge and research that needs to be passed around from different environments, and we we will hold this event annually in a different location around the country.”

With 39 events for the 2015 International Day for Disaster Reduction taking place in 31 countries, it is clear that disaster reduction is a global concern affecting the wider international community. Rather than confining these concerns to one annual event, the CRC hopes to invite the crucial conversations around disaster reduction, prevention, mitigation and preparedness to take place in an everyday context. 

Find out more about the International Day for Disaster Reduction here.

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Issue One of Fire Australia for 2018 includes a recap of the International Day for Disaster Reduction, investigates what catastrophic flooding could look like in Sydney, asks if your coastal community can cope with rising sea levels, highlights our research in incident management development and looks at predicting blow up bushfires.
Issue Four 2017 of Fire Australia includes research on including animals in emergency planning, details from AFAC17, new priorities in natural hazards research, and a Black Saturday case study to develop guidelines for improved community messaging in bushfires.
Issue Three of Fire Australia for 2017 features new prediction software for predictions of bushfire spread, how NSW's geography curriculum allows students to become agents of change for community resilience, suggestions for reducing the risks involved in prescribed burning, research on the impacts of severe wind during Cyclone Debbie, and new natural hazards science at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.
Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2017 features information about a weather phenomena called a mountain wave that produces severe fire behaviour, an analysis of flood fatalities in Australia, what we can learn about disaster preparation from Indonesia, and leadership for our emergency service volunteers.
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2017 features firestorms, disaster resilience, fire preparation in Bangladesh and the International Day for Disaster Reduction.
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