Disentangling culture and vulnerability: Towards a more holistic approach to disaster risk reduction at Tsho Rolpa glacial lake, Nepal

Jennifer Sherry

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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    Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) have been increasing in frequency and severity in mountainous regions around the world, especially as a result of climate change. The responses to this type of threat have often focused on structural intervention strategies that aim to prevent or control the hazard event itself. Relatively few of the studies on GLOF risk have been social in nature, or meaningfully incorporated the social dimensions of risk. It is widely acknowledged today that reducing disaster risk cannot be achieved without understanding and addressing the underlying social drivers and root causes of risk, including those that condition vulnerability (Burton, 2015; Oliver-Smith, 2016; UNISDR, 2015a). To this point, disaster risk can be conceptualised as the entangling of vulnerable conditions of people and hazardous conditions of their environment. Experts in the disaster field have explicitly identified culture as a topic of crucial importance to understanding disaster risk; at the same time they point out that culture has been neglected until fairly recently in this field (Hewitt, 2012; Krüger, Bankoff, Cannon, Orlowski, & Schipper, 2015; Oliver-Smith, 2016). GLOF hazards present as an appropriate topic for disaster risk and climate change researchers seeking to advance understanding of the socio-cultural dimensions of risk because glacial change is directly observable and subject to cultural framings (Cruikshank, 2005; Orlove, Wiegandt, & Luckman, 2008). The overarching goal of this research was to explore the complexities of the relationship between culture and risk in the context of a GLOF hazard. Specifically, this study employed qualitative methods to explore the ways culture can influence the production or reduction of vulnerability, and mediate disaster risk reduction. A remote Sherpa community from the Rolwaling Valley of Nepal was selected to provide an ideal basis for a case study, especially because of its proximity to Tsho Rolpa. Tsho Rolpa is considered to be the largest and most potentially dangerous glacial lake in the Himalaya, with an outburst flood that is projected to affect the valley some 100 km downstream (Mool, Bajracharya, & Joshi, 2001; Shrestha, Nakagawa, Kawaike, Baba, & Zhang, 2011). This research involved a case study design and incorporated ethnographic data collection methods, including observation, document analysis, and 53 in-depth interviews with members of the Rolwaling community. The methods used in ethnography involve spending extensive time in the field to identify cultural themes and explain a group’s way of life through a holistic cultural portrait (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007). Data collection for this project was an iterative process, such that information obtained in earlier phases informed and shaped what was undertaken in later phases. As with many approaches to ethnography, data analysis took place progressively through all stages of research in an attempt to narrow the broad scope of the initial research questions. The most condensed analysis took place after the final interviews in the third phase of data collection. This involved transcribing interviews with the help of the interpreters, and coding interview responses inductively based on emerging themes using the qualitative analysis software NVivo version 2015 (QSR International). Finally, I recombined and examined all data together to explore points of convergence or divergence to draw empirically-based conclusions. By collecting multiple forms of data, across multiple stages of research, I was able to employ a number of beneficial quality checks of my data and findings, including triangulation and member checking. A major finding of the study was that the Sherpa of Rolwaling associate their vulnerability to large-scale processes of social, economic, and cultural change that have divided their community and impacted their daily lives. Socio-cultural changes and the depopulation of their sacred valley have threatened their identities, cultural values, religious practices, social cohesion, and sense of community that have enabled their survival in a harsh and isolated mountain environment. These same changes have influenced their vulnerability in terms of their exposure, suceptability, and capacity to anticipate, cope with, respond to, and recover from a GLOF event. This case study demonstrates the importance of contextualizing disaster vulnerability by paying close attention to the socio-cultural and historical contexts of those at risk. Identifying key aspects of these contexts exposed underlying influences on the drivers of risk, and gave new meaning to taxonomic indicators that have been used to assess vulnerability under the dominant climate policies of Nepal. In the Rolwaling Sherpa community, cultural frameworks have guided how people interpret GLOF risk and make decisions to adjust, or not, when faced with risk and uncertainty. Other influences on their interpretations of risk and how to respond have included a lack of information about the hazard, misunderstanding of the previous risk reduction project, and distrust in outside experts and risk management authorities. Together, these have contributed to low levels of concern over GLOF risk in this community, little motivation to act on capacities, and maladaptive behaviour that has ultimately increased risk. Results also indicate that the case study community’s religious belief system has influenced how they interpret and respond to the glacial lake hazard, although their beliefs co-exist with more scientific interpretations of risk. Rather than being immobilized by their belief system, I found that religious aspects like rituals and prayer can enhance social cohesion and contribute to capacities for coping with fear and uncertainty in this community. I assert that religion can yield valuable resources for glacial lake risk reduction strategies, which will benefit from incorporating socio-cultural factors more profoundly. Reducing GLOF risk in Nepal will require concerted and coordinated efforts between scientists, the government, donor agencies, the press, and local people. The current policy programmes for responding to climate change-induced threats in Nepal can benefit from enhanced frameworks for capturing the complex, contextual, and dynamic nature of people’s vulnerability. By taking a culturally-focused approach to vulnerability in a threatened community, the results presented in this thesis contribute to the ethic of engagement that is critical to the future of DRR efforts in Nepal and in other disaster-prone regions of the world. Through acknowledging the role of cultural factors, hidden causes of vulnerability were identified, and non-traditional capacities and opportunities for disaster risk reduction were revealed.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Charles Sturt University
    • Curtis, Allan, Principal Supervisor
    • Mendham, Emily, Principal Supervisor
    • Toman, Eric, Principal Supervisor, External person
    Award date31 May 2017
    Publication statusPublished - 01 Jun 2017


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