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The world faces increasing threats of damage, injury and loss due to hazards and climate change

Key Concepts

Key Concepts

The world faces increasing threats of damage, injury and loss due to hazards and climate change, and Indigenous peoples are at heightened vulnerability. However, while Indigenous persons may face greater vulnerability than other communities and groups in a region, they also harbor a host of relevant knowledge that can be applied broadly to disaster risk reduction strategies, programs and policies. Below we define key terminology that is to the work of the network. It is important to recognize the inherent variation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives, and state that the definitions presented below regarding disaster risk reduction may not always reflect both pillars of knowledge.  Disaster risk reduction related concepts stated below follow the internationally agreed-upon definitions developed through UNISDR.

What is indigenous knowledge?

One widely accepted practice of improving measures for disaster risk reduction among Indigenous communities is to promote the exchange and incorporation of Indigenous Knowledge into emergency planning. The Indigenous Knowledge and Disaster Risk Reduction Network chooses to recognize Indigenous Knowledge by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) definition:

Local and Indigenous knowledge refers to the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. This knowledge is integral to a cultural complex that also encompasses language, systems of classification, resource use practices, social interactions, ritual and spirituality. These unique ways of knowing are important facets of the world’s cultural diversity and provide a foundation for locally appropriate sustainable development.

For many centuries, Indigenous peoples have implemented and utilized their local knowledge to prepare for, cope with and respond to disasters that impact their communities. Much of this knowledge has arisen from their close relationship with the environment, and both cultural beliefs and community practices have allowed their knowledge to be maintained and passed down over many generations. Recently, governments, organizations and experts have begun to acknowledge the importance of Indigenous Knowledge in reducing the impact of disasters on indigenous communities around the world.

At the Hemispheric Consultation on Engaging Indigenous Peoples in Disaster Risk Reduction, in Vancouver, Canada in 2014, indigenous delegates discussed the value of Indigenous Knowledge in reducing disaster risk. Indigenous Knowledge, values and culture are important tools to be used for risk reduction and should be widely disseminated and incorporated in the discussion around disaster risk reduction strategies.

What is considered a disaster?

Based on the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) terminology surrounding disaster risk reduction, a disaster can be defined as a disruption to normal or regular community functions, or society at any scale, due to a hazard interacting with existing vulnerabilities and capacities and leading to human, material, economic or environmental impacts or losses. Disasters vary in their scope and severity and can either be immediate or extended over a longer period. The scope of a disaster will often depend on vulnerabilities of the community, and the capacity and preparedness to respond using their own resources.

The hazardous events that can lead to disasters and significant societal disruption can vary both in scope and origin. The classification of hazards can vary greatly by Indigenous and non-Indigenous definitions. Below, we organize the various types of hazards based on the World Health Organization (WHO) classifications:

WHO Classification of hazards



Main Types

Hydro-meteorological     Geophysical Earthquake
Mass movement (geophysical trigger)
Volcanic activity
Hydrological  Flood
Mass movement (hydro-meteorological trigger)
Wave action
Meteorological Storm
Extreme temperature

Glacial lake out-burst

Biological Airborne diseases
Waterborne diseases
Vector-borne diseases
Foodborne outbreaks
Insect infestations
Animal diseases
Plant diseases
Antimicrobial resistant micro-organisms
Animal-human contact
Extraterrestrial Impact event
Space weather
Technological   Industrial hazards
Occupational hazards
Air pollution
Infrastructure disruption
Hazardous materials in air, soil, water
Food contamination
Societal   Acts of violence
Armed conflicts
Civil unrest
Financial crises
Environmental Degradation    Erosion
Sea level rise
Wetland loss/degradation
Glacier retreat/melting
Sand encroachment 


Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) has developed and disseminated widely accepted international terminology for disaster risk reduction. These definitions were initially developed to have a common understanding among disaster risk reduction practitioners, authorities and the public. They have been revised over the years since their formation to reflect the current and ever-evolving practice of disaster risk management. Below are a few key definitions from UNISDR, but the full indicators and terminology can be found in the resource database.

  • Capacity: The combination of all the strengths, attributes and resources available within an organization, community or society to manage and reduce disaster risks and strengthen resilience.
  • Disaster management: The organization, planning and application of measures preparing for, responding to and recovering from disasters.
  • Disaster risk: The potential loss of life, injury, or destroyed or damaged assets which could occur to a system, society or a community in a specific period of time, determined probabilistically as a function of hazard, exposure, vulnerability and capacity
  • Disaster risk management: Disaster risk management is the application of disaster risk reduction policies and strategies to prevent new disaster risk, reduce existing disaster risk and manage residual risk, contributing to the strengthening of resilience and reduction of disaster losses.
  • Disaster risk reduction: Disaster risk reduction is aimed at preventing new and reducing existing disaster risk and managing residual risk, all of which contribute to strengthening resilience and therefore to the achievement of sustainable development.
  • Mitigation: The lessening or minimizing of the adverse impacts of a hazardous event.
  • Preparedness: The knowledge and capacities developed by governments, response and recovery organizations, communities and individuals to effectively anticipate, respond to and recover from the impacts of likely, imminent or current disasters.
  • Resilience: the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions through risk management
  • Vulnerability: the conditions determined by physical, social, economic and environmental factors or processes which increase the susceptibility of an individual, a community, assets or systems to the impacts of hazards

While these are widely accepted definitions used in the field of disaster risk management, Indigenous delegates at the Hemispheric Consultation on Engaging Indigenous Peoples in Disaster Risk Reduction, in Vancouver, Canada in 2014, called for definitions, concepts and standards related to disaster risk reduction and response to reflect both Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives. It is our hope that by creating a space for knowledge sharing and communication, that definitions that are cognizant of both Indigenous knowledge and existing disaster risk management terminology will begin to emerge.

© 2020 Indigenous Knowledge and Disaster Risk Reduction Network