Use local knowledge, collective memory and shared cultural values to improve disaster preparedness, response and recovery


A community-based approach to disaster management should be adopted. This requires collaborating with community leaders and both active and “regular” citizens as an effective way to tap into their local knowledge and/or collective memories of local events. Such collaboration and consultation should also make use of the respective communities’ shared cultural values, in order to improve their collective problem-solving capacities in disaster response and recovery as well as their collective resilience (Deliverable 4.2, Deliverable 7.3).

Applicable to:

Stakeholders: Policy Makers, Disaster Managers

Disaster Phases: Preparedness, Response, Recovery

Types of Actors Concerned: Local authorities, Non-active citizens, Active citizens, National civil protection bodies, Healthcare and emergency services

Hazards: Natural hazards, Man-made non-intentional hazards or emergency situations, Man-made intentional hazards

Cultural Map Entries:

Disaster events lower levels of optimism but after a period of time, perceptions of risk decrease

Previous experience with natural disasters is linked to a greater willingness to be better prepared and cooperate with local authorities

Long-term disaster effects in the perception of threats

Personal experience guides behaviour more than received information

Experience with violent life events influences future perception of risk

Prior negative experiences influence perceptions of future risks depending on the severity of personal consequences of the former

When powerlessness is negatively associated with mitigation intentions, victims become reluctant to engage in risk mitigation activities

Independence and interdependence are culturally interrelated in risk event assessment

The ways in which people are used to dealing with risk in everyday life is based on societal values (culture)

Adaptive patterns to risk are linked to cultural practices and location

A community's local knowledge has value in dealing with disasters

Capacities of local communities and their culture is important in defining their level of preparedness, response and recovery from a disaster

In some cases, local knowledge is essential in providing reliable information about the area of intervention

Experts should consider local knowledge a legitimate type of learning, and incorporate it into strategies and policies

Alternative knowledge strategies and local risk cultures are important in policy and decision-making processes, both for experts and non-experts

Popular explanations of threats and disasters are important to the cultures in question

For natural hazards linked to geographical location, risk perception tends to decrease as distance from the risk source increases

Comparison of risk perception levels and its correlates among communities affected by natural disasters

Living in risk areas highlights higher levels of risk acceptance

Individual previous experience with disaster and the link with risk perception and risk related behaviour

Communicating risks and individual preparedness

How disaster experiences shape citizens' initial responses

Importance of local experience In dealing with disasters

Impact of frequency of disasters on risk perception

Perception of risk in relation unrelated with previous experience

Prior positive experiences with authorities increase trust levels in a disaster

Authorities' effectiveness in dealing with past events enhances feelings of security amongst citizens

Citizen perception of risk linked to perceived frequency of disaster occurrences

Cultural attitudes towards authorities and the role of community leaders

The role of "cultural leaders" as identifiable reference points in the prevention and preparedness phases

Importance of aged individuals in disaster situations

The role of pupils and children in empowerment processes

Foreigners as a vulnerable group in a disaster

Usefulness of intangible cultural knowledge in disasters

The role of disaster experience in disaster response

The value of sharing inter-generational knowledge

Disaster experience as a factor in the decision to evacuate

Strengthening local practices by assessing local knowledge

Cultural knowledge of employees of disaster management authorities as a resource

Popular knowledge definition

Learning processes enhanced by natural disasters

General association with cultural factors: Norms/values, Customs/traditions/rituals, Social networks


Recommendation A

Elements of local knowledge and practices used to contribute to disaster risk reduction should be listened to and reviewed by disaster managers. These include, for example, citizens’ local environmental knowledge and community memories carried on in stories of dangers and past events.

Related cultural factors: Individual/collective memory, Languages

Recommendation B

To integrate local knowledge into disaster management, both scientific and citizens’ local knowledge should be combined for hazard mapping and other disaster risk assessments, including the consultation of affected citizens regarding safe locations.

Related cultural factors: Individual/collective memory, Languages

Recommendation C

To aid the process of (re-)constructing a shared sense of place that can both improve disaster preparedness and foster recovery after a disaster has struck, the following should be encouraged: (a) community gatherings to share information about customs and traditions; (b) local events where older community members share stories with the younger generation to help preserve communities’ cultural and social identity; and/or (c) collective identification of local support networks.

Related cultural factors: Customs/traditions/rituals, Local knowledge, Gender roles, Social networks

Recommendation D

Individuals should be encouraged to move from the role of a “common”/passive citizen to that of actor/active citizens in the disaster management process. This can be achieved by drawing on collective memories and re-enacting roles adopted in previous disasters, e.g. in community-based disaster simulations (both physical and virtual).

Related cultural factors: Individual/collective memory, Local knowledge

Recommendation E

Town planners should respect pre-disaster local identities when re-designing and re-building disaster-struck localities. Reconstructing a “place” to its prior state can help survivors reconstruct their own sense of it and mitigate or avoid a loss of cultural identity. Preservation of the urban landscape can, thus, be a form of resilience.

Recommendation F

Individuals with a strong attachment to place, who may also be more willing to become proactive, should be identified and involved in the recovery process, since their sentiment is likely to foster greater efforts in community revitalisation, general altruism and higher community spirit.

Recommendation G

Family values, skills and qualities, e.g. open communication, clear roles and boundaries, the ability to express and respond to feelings and emotions, and collective problem-solving capacities should be called upon and used as a resource to empower individuals and communities in disaster situations.

Recommendation H

Re-building community integrity after a disaster is strongly dependent on the sustainable recovery of families, especially in cultures, where the family unit is as important as the individual.

Related cultural factors: Norms/values, Customs/traditions/rituals

Further reading:

Cannon, T. Schipper, E. L. F. Bankoff, G. & Kruger, F. (2014). World Disasters Report 2014. Focus on culture and risk. Lyon, France.

Donovan, K. (2010). Doing social volcanology: exploring volcanic culture in Indonesia. Area, 42(1), 117-126.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (2011, December). A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action [Press release]. Retrieved from

Gultom, D. I. (2016). Community-based disaster communication: how does it become trustworthy? Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal, 25(4), 478-491. doi: 10.1108/DPM-02-2016-0026.

International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. (May 2009). Socio-cultural Engagement and Sensitivity in Disaster Risk Reduction (Vol. Briefing Paper 1). Kathmandu, Nepal.

Miller, J. L. (2012). Psychosocial Capacity Building in Response to Disasters: Columbia University Press.

Moore, H. E. (1964). And the Winds Blew: Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, The University of Texas. In, Granot, H. (1996). Disaster subcultures. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal, 5(4), 36-40. doi: 10.1108/09653569610127433.

Rajan, R. S. (2002). Missing expertise, categorical politics, and chronic disasters: the case of Bhopal. In S. M. Hoffman & A. Oliver-Smith (Eds.), Catastrophe and Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster (pp. 237-259). Oxford: James Currey.

Reid, M. (2013). Disasters and Social Inequalities. Sociology Compass, 7(11), 984-997. doi: 10.1111/soc4.12080.

Shaw, R., Uy, N., & Baumwoll, J. (2008). Indigenous Knowledge for Disaster Risk Reduction: Good Practices and Lessons Learned from Experiences in the Asia-Pacific Region. Bangkok: UNISDR Asia and Pacific.

UN-Habitat. (2007). Enhancing Urban Safety and Security. Global Report on Human Settlements 2007.London: UN-Habitat.

Weller, J. M., & Wenger, D. E. (1973).Disaster subcultures: the cultural residues of community disasters. (Preliminary Papers: 9).