Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

CSTPR Noontime Seminar

Anticipating Disaster: Local Dependence on Formal Climate Information vs. Traditional Ways of Knowing

by Sierra Gladfelter
Geography Department, University of Colorado Boulder

Abstract: Rural Zambian communities living on the floodplains of the Zambezi River increasingly suffer from climate-induced disasters, with both floods and droughts alternatively striking and eroding their security. In 2009, Thurlow et al. estimated that residents across southern Zambia face a 75-80% chance of experiencing either a severe drought or flood in any given year. In spite of these predictions, communities here receive limited support in terms of advanced forecasts and early warnings that might enable them to better prepare for disasters. As a result, many residents continue to rely on traditional ways of anticipating and adapting to floods and droughts in order to secure their families and livelihoods. This presentation is based on qualitative data collected as part of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre internship in rural communities of Kazungula District, in Southern Province of Zambia during the summer of 2016. The goals of this study were to document current barriers that communities face both in coping with and adapting to climate-induced disasters and to identify potential culturally-appropriate and feasible mechanisms to improve access to early warnings and enhance preparedness. I argue that while profound barriers restrict the dissemination of formal forecasts at the national level, there are significant opportunities to leverage information already available on the ground by using informal communication structures to provide early warnings at the village level. This research speaks to broader efforts to develop low-tech, climate adaptive strategies to support vulnerable communities in coping with the effects of climate change not only in Zambia but across the developing world.

Biography: Sierra Gladfelter is currently completing a Master’s degree in geography and a certificate in development studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Broadly, her research interests include the politics of knowledge, vulnerability, and social justice that surround climate adaptation and disaster mitigation programs across the developing world. Particularly drawn to South Asia and the Himalayan region since studying abroad with the School for International Training in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2011, Sierra’s Master’s thesis examined a set of interventions to mitigate the impacts of flooding in island communities along the Karnali River in southwestern Nepal. Recently awarded a Fulbright-Nehru student research award in India, Sierra is excited to continue her work both critically and productively engaging development and humanitarian interventions to assist communities in coping with chronic floods and droughts in order to more actively integrate local knowledge and priorities into the design and implementation of such solutions. Sierra also has applied experience outside of academia studying climate change, resilience and the uneven process of recovery from climate-induced disasters along rivers in Zambia and the United States with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-International.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017
2017 - 12:00 to 13:00





  • CIRES employees
  • CU Boulder employees
  • General Public
  • NOAA employees
  • Science collaborators


  • Seminar
  • Open to Public



CSTPR Conference Room