Any views expressed within media held on this service are those of the contributors, should not be taken as approved or endorsed by the University, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University in respect of any particular issue.

A free course exploring cultural heritage as a lens to critically question conventional approaches on adaptation

Author: kcrowley

Contact Us

Our research team is global but to contact the team please email Dr Kate Donovan at the University of Edinburgh.

UK based research team members include:

Dr Kate Donovan (Principle Investigator for the CRITICAL projects) email:

Dr Rowan Jackson | The University of Edinburgh

Dr Younghwa Cha

Final take-home messages and recommendations for research, practice and policy.

 Our final messages

This section is taken from the CRITICAL project policy brief. The team collaborated over 18 months to raise the voice of the most vulnerable and marginalised, we used heritage as our tool for dialogue around climate change adaptation and we learnt so much about heritage and the opportunities that can be found at a local level to overcome the climate crisis. We hope that you leave this course we a positive renewed energy to tackle climate change using your heritage toolkit. Engage, discuss and share your cultural heritage for the good of our society. The short video below provides some key take-home messages whilst you can read our summary and recommendations for policy makers, researchers and practitioners below.

Heritage is much more than the preservation of old buildings and sites. What we eat, how we dance, how we mourn the dead, what we sing and how we love, are practices that can sustain all sorts of onslaughts. How this is represented and who represents becomes key in any conversation after catastrophe.”

-Dominque Niemand, Research Associate, University of Pretoria, South Africa.


There can be no sustainable development without Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) including Climate Change Adaptation (CCA). Yet these rely on a foundation of understanding risk in all its complexity. Heritage is a missing component of conventional risk approaches, despite its ability to shape our identity, deliver capacities, and expose vulnerabilities. The CRITCAL project aimed to better understand the role of heritage within risk assessment through the investigation of three case study sites and developing a community of practice across three Low-Middle Income Countries (LMICs). The case study sites identified were across three scales: the small-scale settlement of Elandskloof in South Africa; the city region of Yogyakarta, Indonesia and a national approach across Sri Lanka. Exploring these three scales we were able to capture a narrative-based risk assessment for heritage and found that heritage opens avenues for dialogue on livelihoods, gender, local level capacity and vulnerability.

Our case studies

At a national scale, Dr Karunarthna carried out multiple interviews and facilitated two workshops in rural settlements across Sri Lanka. Furthermore, her work included a review of historical literature exploring the role of women in traditional rural practices. At a city-scale, Dr Retnowati and Ms Anantasari carried out a series of interviews with key stakeholders along the River Code in Yogyakarta region. In South Africa, Prof O’Connell and Ms Niemand led two workshops, a household survey and a series of interviews in Elandskloof. In addition, a review of climate data for each site and a systematic synthesis of literature related to heritage, risk and value was undertaken (Crowley et al 2022).

Key take-home messages

“Cultural memories can create an intellectual platform to brainstorm potential use of the heritage practices for a sustainable future” 

-Dr Dulma Karunarathna, University of Victoria, Canada.

Local risk narratives have challenged conventional top-down approach to understanding the threats to heritage from climate change. We find that our case studies identified how local community value place, and how heritage can be a mechanism for engagement with adaptation. Conventional risk assessments for heritage sites rarely take into account local level values and are currently largely lacking in LMICs (Crowley et al 2022). Heritage is considered a resource in the three case sites. In Yogyakarta, the river is a heritage asset and forms a cultural axis through the city. In Elandskloof, a narrative of loss in terms of intergenerational knowledge due to forced removal and climate change were uncovered. The capacity of women and their traditional environmental knowledge for climate adaptation was captured across Sri Lanka. The research findings were discussed at a final stakeholder workshop in March 2022 resulting in the identification of three areas of critical thinking:

  • Heritage as procedural – That heritage should not necessarily be preserved in a static state without understanding its influence in local and regional level resilience building and how it is influenced by socio-economic change as well as environmental stressors.
  • Heritage as a research and engagement tool – There is a need for more creative and local level methods for discussing vulnerability and capacity. Our research has found that using heritage as a lens opens a dialogue on place-based issues vital for adaptation and wider resilience.
  • Heritage as adaptation and vulnerability influencers – Heritage is part of a local people’s vulnerability and capacity for CCA and a crucial component in resilience building. Heritage can be a critical asset for people living with environmental change and how heritage is ‘protected’ can have significant impact on people’s vulnerability. For example, the designation of UNESCO world heritage status can exclude the needs of local people, whilst embracing local environmental expertise can open up space for hybrid knowledge production that leads to improved adaptation.

The research team reflected on their cross-disciplinary work during this project at a time of global pandemic. A learning approach was central to this project and the interdisciplinary team has captured and shared a diversity of voice on heritage through a freely available e-Learning course, a series of videos as well as ArcGIS story maps.

Lessons learnt

Disasters related to climate change and environmental damage have put cultural traditions and cultural landscapes at unprecedented risk. The impact of climate change on heritage requires improvements in the planning and management.”

– Dr Arry Retnowati, Centre of Excellence in Technological Innovation for Disaster Mitigation (GAMA-InaTEK), Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

  • Local led research design that is fully supported and flexible enabled a depth of investigation led by international co-investigators.
  • The COVID pandemic not only led to challenges in continuity for the research teams due to illness, as well as how to safely access isolated settlements but there was a loss of elder-held knowledge within those settlements.
  • Full team face-to-face meetings were not possible during the project. Virtual meetings worked well and enabled attendance but a full team meeting would have improved team discussions and refinement of final outputs and future roadmap (see Figure 1).

Recommendations for policy makers, researchers and practitioners – let your voice be heard!

There are three core recommendations that speak across different audiences:

  • Recommendation 1: Examine and support the role of heritage for adaptive capacity and resilience building.
  • Recommendation 2: Enable access to, and dialogue around, climate change information for people living in isolated and marginalised settlements.
  • Recommendation 3: Expand the resources for local level adaptation through heritage driven risk assessments.

For funders and policy makers at an international scale:

  • Move away from heritage as a built asset that needs preserving or protection. Consider instead a narrative of heritage as a capacity for adaptation and resilience building.
  • Ensure that UNESCO World Heritage Site Outstanding Universal Value is balanced with local level understanding of value for heritage.
  • Invest in adaptation funds that are driven by the local level needs, and aim to move beyond assessment into implementation, monitoring and learning.
  • Ensure all funds enable local meaningful participation and target forgotten or marginalized voices.
  • Support interdisciplinary and women led applied research projects that test new ways of thinking and doing with local people rather than for local people.

For country-level policy makers:

  • Enable funds that provide access to national and local scale climate change information to the local level for local decision making that compliments local experiences and knowledge.
  • Enable flexible and long-term adaptation funding that includes local people, their livelihoods, and their heritage.
  • Take an inclusive and cautionary approach to UNESCO WHS status, considering the positive and negative impacts on livelihoods, socio-cultural, socio-economic power relationships and land use.

For researchers and civil society:

  • Evaluate heritage hotspots to capture a diversity of case studies demonstrating the value and influence for climate change adaptation and disaster management.
  • Enable locally led research that is flexible and designed by local researchers based in country.
  • Provide freely accessible space for sharing and learning through new technologies.
  • Build in a sharing of findings and tools back to the local people who are central to your research.
  • Enable access to and dialogue around climate change information for people living in isolated and marginalized settlements.
  • Enabling climate change literacy across stakeholders from local people to policy makers is essential. This should encompass being aware of both climate change and its anthropogenic causes and underpins informed mitigation and adaptation responses.

We would like to thank and acknowledge our funders the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and UK Department for Digital, Cultural, Media and Sport (Award ref: AH/V006371/1). We would also like to thank our expert advisory panel for their invaluable time and support throughout this project in particular Professor Andrew Dugmore and Dr Sukanya Krishnamurthy at the University of Edinburgh, Professor David Harvey and Professor Nick Shepard at Aarhus University, Denmark, and Terry Cannon at the Institute for Development Studies, UK.

We would also like to thank those who have contributed through reviews, video contributions and attendance at stakeholder workshops.

Overall, we would like to acknowledge and thank the people who have contributed their time and knowledge to this project from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and South Africa.

2.2 Challenge of cultural heritage and risk assessment

What’s the challenge?

There can be no sustainable development without Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) including Climate Change Adaptation (CCA). These rely on risk assessment that encompass understanding the hazard, exposure, vulnerabilities as well as capacities in all their complexities. Cultural heritage shapes our society and influences our actions before, during and after disasters, yet as Taschakert et al (2017:6) argue “assessments of disaster impacts largely ignores such experiences and understandings”. Incorporating heritage into risk informed decision making is therefore vital for building and maintaining resilience.

The video below covers recent efforts to build capacities in face of climate risk at the national and international level. In particular, the video highlights the importance of research and cooperation in the management of climate risk in a cultural heritage context.

The importance of risk assessment

Many cultural heritage sites are at risk of natural hazards and climate-change related such as, floods, landslides, droughts, wildfire, drought, extreme weather, and sea level rise among others. The impacts of natural hazards such as floods compounded with the uncertainty of climate change are difficult to identify and measure. To manage and reduce a specific risk, an assessment is necessary. Risk assessment is the judgement to combine present observation with past experiences to allow the prediction of future events and guide future actions. Since climate change is expected to intensify existing risk level, risk assessment should constitute the starting point for managing and eventually reducing future risks on cultural heritage.

The CRITICAL research team reviewed peer-reviewed academic papers published between 2007-2021 relating to risk assessment tools or frameworks and cultural heritage. There findings illustrate a serious issue with the incorporation of heritage within risk assessments.

Key messages from this analysis include:

  • Risk assessment for disaster management and CCA can take many forms. There is no standard risk assessment method for CCA or disaster management but rather a plethora of approaches from large-scale quantitative assessments using vulnerability functions to focussed qualitative narratives.
  • Exposure is critical for understanding risk, but not a sufficient analysis on its own.
  • Hazards are generally considered as single events although there is considerable debate about the effectiveness of this approach when multihazards are far more likely to occur.
  • Despite many of these papers discussing the importance of risk assessment and all its components (vulnerability, hazard, exposure, and capacity) the majority focus on just exposure or hazard modelling.
  • The tools developed and discussed in these papers identified the exposure of cultural heritage to hazards but not the degree of vulnerability or contribution towards capacity. Those that did discuss vulnerability did so largely in relation to exposure or focussed substantially on the structural vulnerabilities of the built environment.
  • Challenges predominately focus on a lack of data, tools and capacity.
  • Papers highlight a significant range of barriers to adaptation including a lack of understanding of vulnerability, a conventionally ‘top-down’ approach, lack of decision maker awareness, low level of communications between different stakeholders and a lack of policies or regulations.
  • The discourse across the literature is dominated by the drive to protect or conserve heritage, whilst only one paper reviewed discuss the lack of awareness of heritage benefits for adaptation. Whilst, only one other paper notes that lack of understanding between the threats to cultural heritage and wellbeing of the local communities.

PAR model for heritage risk management

The Pressure and Release (PAR) model in disaster management explained by Terry Cannon. The PAR model seeks to explain how the intersection between the process of generating vulnerability and natural hazards exposures creates and/or exacerbates social vulnerability (Blaikie et al. 1994). The video clip is from a CRITICAL project workshop ( July 2021).

This framework provides a way of understanding that vulnerability is multi-layered.  This framework was designed a number of years ago and describes that disasters are social constructs, and require both a natural hazard and also vulnerable people or ecosystems.


Further readings & resources

Blaikie et al, 1994, At Risk, Routledge


3.1 Diversity of voice: Introduction of case studies

The importance of diversity of voice

In order to move away from or critically reflect on a western discourse on heritage management and risk assessment you need to listen to a range of voices from different geographies.

The CRITCAL project aimed to better understand the role of heritage within risk assessment through the investigation of three case study sites. We wanted to develop a community of practice across three Low-Middle Income Countries (LMICs) and the UK. The case study sites worked three scales: the small-scale settlement of Elandskloof in South Africa; a city region of Yogyakarta, Indonesia and a national approach across Sri Lanka. Exploring these three scales we were able to capture a narrative-based risk assessment for heritage and found that heritage opens avenues for dialogue on livelihoods, gender, local level capacity and vulnerability.

The video below outlines the importance of understanding culture at a local level.

Three sites, many voices

This module explores three locations. Through videos and text we ask you to consider these studies and reflect on how heritage is understood in different contexts.

In summary we found that heritage can take many forms, for example in this course we have examples of buildings, landscapes, and customs. Furthermore, we found how heritage is important not just because it is vulnerable to climate change but also because it offers capacity. We invite you to explore the posts in this module and learn more about how heritage can be a tool for climate change adaptation and risk reduction.


The research teams engaged with local communities and experts to address all three original research questions. Their findings are context specific and include alternative and community led visions of cultural heritage and their interconnections with climate change adaptation and sustainable livelihoods. As well as identifying and trialling innovative participatory methods that can be integrated within a wider holistic risk framework that places cultural assets and practice at the heart of resilience building.

At a national scale, Dr Karunarthna carried out multiple interviews and facilitated workshops in rural settlements across Sri Lanka. Furthermore, her work included a review of historical literature exploring the role of women in traditional rural practices. At a city-scale, Dr Retnowati and Ms Anantasari carried out a series of interviews with key stakeholders along the River Code in Yogyakarta region. In South Africa, Prof O’Connell and Ms Niemand led two workshops, a household survey and a series of interviews in Elandskloof, South Africa. In addition, a review of climate data for each site and a systematic synthesis of literature related to heritage, risk and value was undertaken (Crowley et al 2022).

Research findings in brief

The South Africa team, led by Dr Siona O’Connell and Dominque Niemand, identified the influence loss in terms of indigenous knowledge systems and how food heritage may pave the way to intergenerational knowledge exchange. They also explore how violent and forced removals from the land have led to significant vulnerabilities for communities across South Africa. Section 3.2 outlines the case study findings in detail.

In Indonesia the team, Dr Arry Retnowati and Esti Anantasari identified the importance and cultural value of an urban river system and are expanded their work to explore the wider urban setting of Yogyakarta, and it’s bid to become a city-wide UNESCO World Heritage Site. The river’s cultural narrative is critical in understanding local adaptive capacity and vulnerabilities over time, and how cultural heritage is a dynamic force not just something to be preserved. Section 3.4  outlines the case study findings in detail.

In Sri Lanka, Dr Dulma Karunarathna identified the importance of local knowledge for water resource management and the cultural connections for women and their livelihoods. She has also implemented a series of engagements with communities in Sri Lanka through school-based art competitions as well as community storytelling workshops. Section 3.3 outlines the case study findings.

The narratives emerging from the three sites align with the results of the desk-based literature reviews that have identified the serious lack of understanding and integration of intangible cultural heritage, community level engagement, and cultural value in risk assessments for climate change adaptation and disaster management.

This section provides an outline of each case study site explaining the context, and key findings.


Read the teams literature review – Crowley et al 2022 Open Access paper

1.3 What is cultural heritage?

Understanding what is heritage and how is it valued?

A quick overview of key ideas.

We view heritage as processual and emergent, as opposed to static objects to be only preserved (Harvey and Perry, 2015). Tangible climate change impacts on heritage, such as eroding coastal archaeology, chemical weathering and thawing permafrost/landscape change, have dominated publications (Hollesen et al., 2018; Dawson et al., 2020). Yet impacts on heritage intersects with a far wider range of objects and practices (Sandford 2019; DeSilvey and Harrison, 2020).

Intangible heritage, such as traditional belief systems, are also a resource of environmental knowledge for future adaptation (Adger et al 2012). Archaeologists and heritage experts have benefited from comparing different cultural sites, focusing on the diversity of heritage sites, landscapes and traditions and what can be learned from such examples (Hambrecht and Rockman, 2017).

Sharing knowledge of the range of impacts, threats and opportunities associated with multiple types of heritage in different geographical contexts is important developing effective frameworks for heritage protection and as well as community resilience (Fluck and Wiggins, 2017).

Effective dialogue between heritage experts and community members has been acknowledged as a vital step in understanding the role of heritage for climate change adaptation (Hambrecht and Rockman, 2017; Rockman and Hritz, 2020; Rick and Sandweiss, 2020), and there is potential to learn from the diversity of heritage nationally and internationally (Dawson et al., 2020).

What is heritage?

Heritage has been described as “all things to all people”. As we have noted hertiage can be tangible (e.g., buildings, sites, objects) and intangible (e.g., ritual practices, music, belief system). The difficulty tying the concept down makes the scope of heritage hard to define and difficult to contain within one discipline of study.

The disciplines conventionally associated with heritage have focused on the preservation and conservation of historical artefacts, sites, and landscapes. For example, in museums vast resources are dedicated to the conservation of historic artefacts; in national parks resource managers monitor impacts cultural and natural heritage at the landscape scale; and architects and planners’ monitor impacts on buildings and cityscapes.

The extensiveness of heritage assets require the concerted efforts of international organisation like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) to evaluate and monitor heritage ranging from internationally recognised—World Heritage—to intangible heritage at the local scale.

In practice, organisations such as the National Park Service of the United States and Historic Environment Scotland are responsible for the protection and management of cultural heritage at the national scale.

Finally, we can think about heritage at the local scale; the scale at which it is lived, valued, imagined, and consumed.

In the video below, researchers involved in the CRITICAL project consider what heritage means to them. Note how heritage varies significantly between members of the project team. This can be explained by different personal experiences, disciplinary training, research cultures, and national ideas of heritage.

History of heritage

Modern heritage studies and World Heritage dates to the aftermath of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1945. Set in the background of destruction across Europe and Southeast Asia, UNESCO was established with the aim of promoting peace, intercultural understanding, and humanitarianism through international cooperation in education, sciences, art, and culture.

The promotion of culture and the arts was a reaction to the destruction caused by the conflict, leading to the adoption of the World Heritage Convention in 1972 (‘Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage’).

This convention sought to protect and manage listed sites with technical and management expertise from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN, est. 1948), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS, est. 1965), and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICROM, est. 1956).

The influence of the World Heritage Convention has been palpable – especially in Western Europe and North America – with a significant ‘boom’ since the 1970s. Since the 1960s and 1970s in Britain, with membership of heritage organisations such as the National Trust and attendance figures at the British Museum increasing exponentially—with similar attendance figures associated with National Parks and Smithsonian Museums in the United States.

Public attendance of cultural history museums and heritage sites remain consistently popular, with museums and cultural heritage sites topping most national attendance registers (see for example Association for Scottish Visitor Attractions for data).

In the last 10 years, increased attention has been drawn to the impacts of climate change on cultural and natural heritage. This has most recently been highlighted in the Future of Our Past report by ICOMOS (2019) and the acknowledgement of cultural heritage impacts in Working Group Two of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report Six (IPCC, 2022). Links to these resources can be found below.

The video below provides an historical overview and considers the following discussion points:

  • What is international cultural heritage?
  • What role can cultural heritage play in IPCC reports?
  • How do we resolve issues of representation (power relations), a diversity of values (plurality) and climate risk (uncertainty)?

We encourage you to consider these questions as you watch the video.

Heritage management

How are heritage resources managed? What risks does climate change create for cultural heritage in both its tangible and intangible form? The most recognisable example of heritage management can be found in the UNESCO World Heritage Convention of 1972:

Protection and management of World Heritage properties should ensure that their Outstanding Universal Value, including the conditions of integrity and/or authenticity at the time of inscription, are sustained or enhanced over time.

This includes a comprehensive plan for each site on the World Heritage List to monitor, resource and preserve sites—including expert training for site management staff—thus achieving their safeguarding. The Budapest Declaration of 2002 recognised connection between heritage and sustainable development, including the necessary role of local communities in the management of heritage sites and the role of tourism in social and economic development.

Taking this further, the Amsterdam Conference on Linking Universal Values and Local Values recommended consistent local participation to enable the local value of place. This, in turn, recognises the importance of local values in the management of World Heritage Sites in what is termed the “fifth C” of the “Five Cs” strategic objectives from the World Heritage Convention: credibility, conservation, capacity-building, communication, and community.

Further readings & resources

ICOMOS Futures of Our Past:

IPCC Assessment Report Six:

Hambrecht, G. and Rockman, M., 2017. International approaches to climate change and cultural heritage. American Antiquity82(4), pp.627-641. Open Access

Harrison, R., 2013. Heritage: Critical Approaches. Routledge.

Sri Lankan Food

3.3 Sri Lanka: Environmental folklore and traditional climate knowledge systems

The power of environmental folklore and cultural memory for understanding climate change risk and adaptation

Climate change impact on cultural heritage is one of the obscured areas in Sri Lankan academic scholarship. The prevailing knowledge gap creates an urgent need to reconstruct the indigenous and local climate knowledge systems in Sri Lanka, constructed through a comparative study. The case studies were selected representing ethnic and cultural diversity and cross-regional basis to support this comparative study. This research examines the traditional knowledge systems as a comparative study. Environmental folklore (Intangible Heritage) was collected from small-scale tank cascade village cultures in Sri Lanka.

This conventionally neglected research elaborately magnify the local ecological knowledge, traditional livelihood, contemporary social norms and dynamics, and harmonious connection between culture and nature.

One of the advantages of collecting data from folklore is the opportunity to obtain a detailed version of the profile of women in respective village cultures. Cultural memories of the peoples who are the stakeholders of the Sri Lankan hydraulic civilization offer a detailed narration that is robust enough to fill the lacunae of the social life of women non-elites sidelined in heritage studies.

The research focus

This research mainly examines the role of women in small-scale tank cascade village communities in Sri Lanka as a response to extreme weather events and climate change. Main case studies focused on locations Galtemwewa, North-western province, Moragoda, North-central province, Kalukele, and North-central province. The sub-case studies were conducted to compare the role of women in different ethnic and cultural settings. These locations are Sri Lankan aboriginal community in Dambana, Uva province, Tamil Island community in Delft Island, Northern Province, and coastal fishing community, Ulhitiyawa, North-western Province. Status of women, gender attribution, gender identities, gender roles of these societies were identifies and compared.

Whose heritage?

The earliest writings about Sri Lanka’s history were mainly based on colonial constructions. The main streams of their approaches were colonialism, orientalism, imperialism, and antiquarianism. According to the content of this literature, it is clear that the colonial writers had a preconceived notion about Sri Lankan culture in attempts to understand Sri Lankan life, behavioral patterns, beliefs, rituals and flora, and fauna.

A great number of volumes written the Sri Lankan irrigation systems and detailed recordings of Ceylon ecology and traditional livelihood were used as a tool of colonialism and this understanding helped the colonial administration to plant the Eurocentric values on Sri Lankan earth. This situation created an inferiority complex over traditional livelihood in traditional village cultures, and they started giving up their traditional indigenous values and knowledge systems. However, the knowledge they record can be used as a valuable archival collection.

There is a growing body of literature about tank cascade systems, ecology, biodiversity, agrobiodiversity, biophysical changes, climate change, groundwater chemistry, food and water security, dramatic changes in village cultures and traditions sustainability (Maddumabandara, Marambe, Darmasena, Gunasinghe ) These researches examine the Sri Lankan tanks and agricultural societies through environmental and sociological aspects. They draw our attention to the wider environmental aspect including climate change and environmental relations and issues beyond ancient ingenuity and water management. These research helps to understand the human intervention to the natural environment and their environmental sensitivity and ecological knowledge.

The characteristic elite bias of existing literature and the grandeur of the ancient built environment sidelined the small-scale tank cascades in village contexts.

Traditional livelihood, climate risks, their adaptation strategies were not adequately examined in the Sri Lankan historiography and heritage studies scholarship. The invisibilization of women in these agrarian societies is a knowledge gap of existing literature.

There is a growing body of literature on water security, agriculture, and climate change in Sri Lanka. The gender lenses to climate change and exploring this area through folklore (intangible heritage) and cultural practices and memories were done for the first time of its kind through this study. So, this research undoubtedly fills the gaps in an obscured area in climate science and cultural heritage studies.

Climate Profiles

Temperatures have increased across Sri Lanka, especially since 1980, although these trends are less significant than other parts of the globe. The South Asian monsoon has weakened, causing a decrease in precipitation in the second half of the 20th century, as a result of anthropogenic aerosol forcing (IPCC 6th assessment report). There is variation in rainfall across Sri Lanka, with the southwest experiencing much greater rainfall than the northwest and southwest.

Temperatures across Sri Lanka and the surrounding ocean areas are expected to increase over the next century. Heatwaves and humid heat stress will also be more frequent and intense (IPCC 6th assessment report).

Gender and Environmental Knowledge

Women are often identified as the most vulnerable and victims of extreme weather events. However, this study found challenges faced by women such as gendered division of labour and gender tasks can also enrich and strengthen them with the knowledge of local ecology, traditional weather forecasting, and household management, proactive in water related conditions.

This research offers an alternative profile of energetic and empowered women, providing an alternative picture beyond the domestic sphere demonstrates the strength, capacity, skills, and responsible consumerism and futuristic approaches of women towards the well-being of the family, the society and environment.

Role of women as a heritage bearer and her indigenous climate knowledge can effectively contribute towards climate solutions, climate change adaptation strategies and environmental decision making.

Intergenerational knowledge

Local people explore and examine the natural environment thoroughly and work in alignment with nature. The behaviour of animals, trees, clouds, rainfalls, and many more facets of nature tell them about the natural climate cycle. Moreover, they have ecological memories of the climate hazards.

The villagers have embedded these climate literacies into the indigenous knowledge and passed them down to the next generation to identify the climate change in advance. The folk songs were the best method that worked for this. The children could easily memorize by heart these factors as they were sung by their elders constantly.

For example, tree worship is considered a divine attribution to nature to nurture and save their catchments. Social organization is functioned by customary laws and people understand the importance of the environment and how it badly impact human if they damage to nature. On one hand, they put moral obligations to maintain responsible consumerism and explained the aftermaths of over consumerism. They embedded these ideas in the advisory folksongs and all work songs.

People are told that the trees were the divine home of gods and goddesses. As a result, deforestation was highly discouraged. People started some small shrines next to the trees and hang a branch of the tree whenever they pass the tree. This is a living tradition in the tank cascade villages. These divine attributions are superstitions but they work very well in the village setting in terms of environmental protection and more effective than government laws and rules.

A changing world

Sadly, although this research identified many traditional mechanisms for water and land management that have been passed down through generations, the research also identified some emerging risks faced by the communities. These include:

  • Unidentified kidney disease – likely due to the chemical fertilizers and pesticides, heavy metals, and chemicals.
  • Vector-borne disease – Malaria, Dengue
  • Covid 19 has impact the elderly community and therefore there is a loss of traditional skills and knowledge at a rapid rate.
  • All these three above health issues caused the death of the elderly community and farmers who were recognized as heritage custodians.
  • Younger generations tend to seek new occupations and give up their traditional agriculture and craft activities.
  • Industrial agriculture and traditional paddy cultivation tools are replaced with modern machines. So, work songs are not sung anymore in many villages, and womens’ labour such as reaping, threshing, gathering, and winnowing is done by machines. Community-based agriculture is slowly disappearing. The machines require fuel and cause carbon emissions can be recognized as environmental issues.
  • There is a vacuum in the traditional knowledge and interpreting the knowledge

Click here to explore more about Cultural memory for resilience in Sri Lanka.

This is one of the ArcGIS story map series from the CRITICAL project. Dr Kate Crowley set up the story map from the Sri Lanka case study provided by Dr Dulma Karunarathna.

About the research

This e-learning course has emerged from a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) exploring climate change adaptation and cultural heritage.

What’s the project called?

CRITICAL: Cultural Heritage Risk and Impact Tools for Integrated and Collaborative Learning

Watch this short video to learn more about the CRITICAL project.

Who is part of the team?

Our team includes researchers in Sri Lanka, South Africa, Scotland and Indonesia!

The team at the University of Edinburgh, UK, includes Dr Kate Donovan, Dr Rowan Jackson and Dr Younghwa Cha.

In South Africa, research examining food heritage and vulnerability is being led by Prof Siona O’Connell and Ms Dominque Wnuczek-Lobaczewski from the University of Pretoria.

In Sri Lanka, Dr Dulma Karunarathna is working on traditional climate change adaptation.

In Indonesia Dr Arry Retnowati and Ms Esti Anantasari from the Universitas Gadja Mada are examining cultural landscapes and natural hazards.

We represent communities from all over the world and hope to share our understanding of the relationship between cultural heritage, disasters and climate change.

Why is it important to understand risk?

There is an urgent need to support the world’s most vulnerable populations to adapt and thrive to rapid environmental change. Understanding climate change and disaster risk is the fundamental first step towards building resilience. This involves understanding both the hazard but also the people and assets exposed to that hazard.

Why should we care about cultural heritage and risk?

Cultural Heritage shapes our identity, delivers capacities and exposes vulnerabilities yet cultural value and vulnerability are missing from conventional risk assessments that support sustainable development and growth. Fundamentally, this means that the things that motivate people, build their resilience and in some cases make them susceptible to hazards is missing from decisions about adaptation and emergency management.

Understanding the vulnerability and value of cultural heritage (e.g. beliefs, buildings, and traditions) is vital to building resilience globally.

What are we doing?

We are working in partnership across Indonesia, South Africa, and Sri Lanka to combine heritage management, cultural geography and climate risk research to form a community of practice focused on Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs). Our diverse team aim to identify and develop interdisciplinary methods to capture the ‘invisible’ vulnerability and value of heritage and incorporate this within risk assessment.

Crucially, this project will collate and share diverse experiences, knowledge and skills to build a portfolio of pilot case studies from the three LMICs on cultural value for climate and disaster risk assessment and management.

The project will finish in early summer 2022 but we will update the course as new learning emerges.

How will I learn and how long will it take?

Course introduction

What are the course contents?

This course consists of short videos, text and reflective commentaries.

The videos provide inspiration on various topics whilst the text provides deeper insight.

The reflective commentaries help you to reflect on, and interact with, the topics. Watch this first video to learn more.

How long will this take?

Each module is designed to take between 1-2 hours per week. We therefore hope that you can work through the materials in 4 weeks or less.

Each module also includes optional additional reading materials provided.

There is no assessment and this course is not accredited.

Meet the Team

This course was developed by the CRITICAL research team.

Full team and affiliations:

Kate Crowley1; Rowan Jackson1; Siona O’Connell2; Dulma Karunarthna3; Esti Anantasari4; Arry Retnowati4; Dominique Niemand2 , Younghwa Cha1, Ashrika Sharma1, and Aythya Young1.

  1. School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
  2. Faculty of Humanities, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa
  3. Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada
  4. Centre of Excellence in Technological Innovation for Disaster Mitigation (GAMA-InaTEK), Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

CRITICAL aims to work in partnership this project will combine heritage management, cultural geography and climate risk research to form a community of practice including researchers from South Africa, Sri Lanka and Indonesia to:

1) identify the key parameters for cultural heritage impact assessment;

2) deliver risk scenarios for decision-making, and

3) share resulting tools and learning through a capacity building and research-to-policy strategy.

We have a blog site to explore as well: Climate Change Adaptation and Cultural Heritage – A space for sharing stories, ideas and updates from research and learning on climate change adaptation (

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén


Report this page

To report inappropriate content on this page, please use the form below. Upon receiving your report, we will be in touch as per the Take Down Policy of the service.

Please note that personal data collected through this form is used and stored for the purposes of processing this report and communication with you.

If you are unable to report a concern about content via this form please contact the Service Owner.

Please enter an email address you wish to be contacted on. Please describe the unacceptable content in sufficient detail to allow us to locate it, and why you consider it to be unacceptable.
By submitting this report, you accept that it is accurate and that fraudulent or nuisance complaints may result in action by the University.