Founding Editor: Shafqat Munir   

Floods, draught: Mitigation possible through indigenous knowledge and cut in carbon emissions 

31 Julie 2010 06:16:21

Floods, draught: Mitigation possible through indigenous knowledge and cut in carbon emissions

By Fayyaz Baqar

Rainstorms, flash floods and rising water level in rivers, water reservoirs and natural streams have recently hit Pakistan. This has resulted in loss of hundreds of lives, numerous bridges, crops and other physical assets. Government and non-government organizations are trying to reach out to the people to mitigate the impact of this catastrophe.

Modern development strategies somehow undermined centuries old indigenous knowledge and practices that helped the then communities in disaster situations. Unfortunately, we do not realize that natural emergencies including flash foods and drought are fast increasing due to climate change caused by extraction and corporate greed that generate carbon emissions. Carbon emissions are mainly caused by excessive deforestation and use of fossil fuel by extractive industries and vehicles.

Climate change is not a new phenomenon. Before the age of corporate capitalism and unbridled consumerism climate was a major determinant in shaping people’s lives, and cultural imaginations across the world. However, production and consumption systems were set up to meet the needs of the people not to generate unlimited profit for corporate sector. Over thousands of years, people in rural areas developed a variety of ways to adapt to the natural conditions and engage in productive activities, making most of what is granted by nature.

Predicting seasonal floods, droughts and insect infestations was of major interest and importance for those who have been living side by side with these phenomena for ages. It is sad that most of this knowledge has been lost due to rapid “development”, urbanization and encroachment of social space by hazardous practices introduced by “mass” production.

It is time to remind ourselves of good “old” practices to understand their value and the need to save and relearn from traditional knowledge. One such story has been narrated by Try Thuon about Mondukiri region of Cambodia.  According to Thuon “Mondulkiri is known for its rich natural resources and large areas of forests and conservation areas. However, recent years have witnessed rapid changes in the province’s landscape as a major part of the land has been converted into economic land concessions, mining and large scale agro-forestry plantations. Ironically the Phnong people who live in the province for centuries are often blamed for causing forest fires and forest degradation. This is in line with the ages old practices of blaming the victims by power elites.

The Phnong have long practiced traditional farming and used forest to support their livelihood and cultural system. They are mostly animist, believing in powerful spirits that inhabit a wide range of natural objects or sites. Many ceremonies are observed to ensure good relationships with these spirits, including sacrifices and libations. Their main farming activity is non-irrigated shifting cultivation (Miir) of upland rice and other crops. Forest is burned before cultivation and ceremonies are performed before and after the farms are cleared. This type of slash and burn, when it allows sufficient time in-between for the forest and ecosystem to regenerate, is not considered destructive to the natural environment).

As their agricultural practices depend largely on natural environment, the Phnong people have developed their own ways of predicting natural phenomena, borrowing wisdoms of the fellow wildlife which habituate the same forest – such as the Bengal Monitor, King Cobra, Long Ant, and Wild Rooster .The Phnong believe that there will be drought when a King Cobra lays eggs close to a stream. If the tails of young Bengal Monitors are whiter around April before the onset of the wet season, then that means there will drought during the upcoming supposedly wet season. When more black colour is observed in Bengal Monitors’ tails in the months of April and May, then the Phnong people would predict more rain, which may possibly lead to flooding. In some parts of Mondulkiri, locations of the nests of Long Ants are also believed to indicate possibility of floods: the higher on a tree and the further away from water they build their nests, the more likely that there will be flood. Similarly, when Wild Roosters lay their eggs on tree stumps or other higher ground and not directly on the ground, then you can expect a flood will come .

People also learned to observe behaviours of rains, dry spells and air flows. When a long (2-3 weeks) drought in otherwise normally wet season, followed by continuous rains with wind for 4-10 days, then they would expect a lot of insects would come to annoy them, taking their crops away”

Thuon adds that since the 1990s onwards,” the Phnong people have come to observe more frequent occurrences and increased intensity of these events, negatively affecting their upland crops. Sometimes insects destroy the entire harvest of one village, which was a hardly seen phenomenon earlier. Some people attribute this to longer spells of drought and changes in weather (more heat and rain), while others blame increased commercial activities in the province, that have led to land clearing/deforestation, changes in water regime, loss of habitat, increased use of pesticides in certain areas. Changes in the patterns of rains and droughts lead to not just crop failure but also competition for water uses for household and agriculture during droughts. Livestock and humans, especially children, fall ill during extreme temperature changes”.

According to Thuon “If these changes continue, the century-old traditional knowledge of the Phnong and other forest dwellers may someday become invalid. The Phnong are already feeling that things are increasingly becoming unpredictable for them. This in turn will disrupt their traditional farming and cultural practices, which for a long time has been dependent upon predictable rainfall patterns and amount”. These are just small examples from a province of Cambodia and before we do not notice, there would be more cultural and intellectual heritages possibly being at risk across the globe.