Boosting disaster resilience through indigenous knowledge-sharing among UK, Thailand, Nepal

Nepal and Thailand confront similar hazards – from storms and floods to droughts and earthquakes, severely affecting impoverished communities and those living at the fringes.

However disadvantaged, these communities possess local experiences that allow them to adapt and respond to disasters. This local knowledge helps researchers better understand and explore solutions to the risks facing these communities.

This is among the key takeaways from the ongoing Political Capabilities for Equitable Resilience (POL-CAPS) project, which convenes researchers across different disciplines from the United Kingdom, Nepal and Thailand to study disaster risk reduction and development planning in urban spaces.

Launched in 2019, POL-CAPS seeks to understand and empower marginalized groups to shape risk reduction efforts. Under the project, experts and practitioners work hand in hand with communities to capture local knowledge, open new spaces for political engagement, and facilitate learning and new alliances between the three countries.

The project is funded by UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body sponsored by the UK government, through the Global Challenges Research Fund Collective Programme, where researchers in the UK and developing countries work together to generate innovative solutions to development issues.

Jonathan Ensor, the project’s principal investigator, said POL-CAPS seeks to understand why the least powerful communities, such as farmers and informal settlers, are excluded from exercising control over their own environmental and livelihood conditions.

Through in-depth engagements with partner communities, the project also explores how the complexity of urban systems, from infrastructure to institutions and political relations, create risks in the provision of services to vulnerable residents.

Despite the differences in their backgrounds and their countries’ unique challenges, Ensor said having scholars from different areas of expertise allows them to talk across contexts and bring varying perspectives to the table.

“We have regular seminars and workshops where we all get together… and we’re learning across contexts as well. International cooperation for us goes beyond UK researchers or UK organizations funding work in developing countries. It’s about partnerships and learning between Nepal and Thailand, as well as between Nepal, Thailand and the UK,” he said.

“In different ways, we’re working with or alongside communities to help them understand their situations in a different way,” said Ensor. “We work through that process with the communities, gaining a shared understanding of what their challenges are. This is not an extractive process where we go in and get a load of data and disappear; we’re learning about the system together.”

In Thailand, the project’s researchers collaborate with a small farming community in the Bang Pakong District in Chachoengsao province. Their low-lying community is exposed to floods and seawater intrusion, but historical knowledge and experience allow the farmers to take advantage of these threats and turn them into resources instead.

In the dry season, farmers harvest saline fish, shrimp and crab, while turning to freshwater fish harvest and rice production during the wet season, shared Khanin Hutanuwatr, the project’s co-investigator.

“This community has a pretty high level of agency for themselves,” he said, adding, “what we hope is that the work that we’ve done would also provide an alternative way to construct a narrative that might help them further what they are working on.”

Hutanuwatr said their engagement also places an emphasis on the importance of non-Western forms of knowledge in dealing with global challenges.

“Rather than bringing Western-based knowledge to be role models for non-Western countries, our interactions helped us see the different ways that we can approach indigenous local knowledge,” he said.

In Nepal, researchers engage with two communities that contend with the lack of access to proper infrastructure for water and electricity. One is an informal settlement along Manohara River, while the other is an urban poor community in Dhulikhel, just outside of Kathmandu.

The Nepali researchers worked with these communities to produce maps that show their access to existing infrastructure for basic services, such as wastewater management. When COVID-19 disrupted their usual fieldwork, they continued their engagement through Zoom interviews and online group discussions, showcasing the communities’ own capacities to adapt to challenges brought by the pandemic.

Sangeeta Singh, a project co-investigator, said the linkages with their colleagues and collaborators from the United Kingdom and Thailand have provided a different perspective and lens to view the challenges in their respective communities, while still highlighting local contexts and experiences.

“Local inner collaborators are important, but in order to be in tune with the global trends, I think international collaboration becomes very, very important,” she said. “It is important that we have these collaborations, not only in terms of projects, but also in terms of knowledge sharing, for example, in designing courses and in conducting guest lectures.”

“It’s not that we are only gaining, but the international community is also gaining from our case studies,” Singh added.

Source: UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction