Remembering and learning from Fukushima | Kamal Kishore

12 Mar 2012

Rescue Workers in Japan Japan has developed disaster risk reduction systems, an investment that has paid off in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. Photo: Patrick Fuller/ IFRC

One year ago, a major earthquake struck off Japan's northeastern coast, causing a devastating tsunami.

A massive tidal wave followed, overwhelming some of the tsunami protection systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, killing thousands of people and forcing 100,000 more from their homes.

While radiation at the nuclear site has now been contained, it will take years to decommission the plant and gauge the radiation impact it has had. Three simultaneous major disasters—earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leak—this was a crisis without precedent.

Japanese authorities drew sharp criticism from domestic constituencies.

But we must recognize that some parts of the Japanese disaster management system worked well, preventing losses of an inconceivable magnitude as might have occurred in many other countries.

In earthquake-stricken areas, trains came properly to a halt, electrical systems shut down, people were evacuated, lives and property largely survived. Most of the damage stemmed from the tsunami and nuclear leakage.

The lessons from Japan are complex: 

Prevention pays.

Japan has developed disaster risk reduction systems – building codes, systems for implementation of buildings codes, emergency response systems, and public awareness of disasters, painstakingly over several decades.  This investment has paid off. 

Take Indonesia as another  example reinforcing this message: A powerful 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit Aceh on 10 January this year, but this did not result in significant damage or casualties.  This was due largely to the active stance the Government has taken on disaster risk reduction. 

Aceh bore the most brunt of the Asia-Pacific tsunami in 2004 that killed 180,000.  As part of its recovery, Indonesia made conscious efforts investing in the formation of local-level disaster management agencies, the training of volunteer disaster responders and creation of a disaster management plan and map demarcating high-risk areas – which influenced reconstruction. 

Global strategic preparedness is essential.

Even when countries are well prepared for natural disasters, some scenarios are unimaginable and overwhelming. No country can deal with this alone. The world must continually expand its capacity to respond. As part of its membership in the UN Inter- Agency Standing Committee-- a unique inter-agency forum for coordination, policy development and decision-making involving the key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners— UNDP, UNICEF, OCHA, WFP, UNHCR and other agencies are focusing on building the international system's preparedness to respond to large scale disasters in selected high risk countries. This is important work and will continue to grow over the years.

Expect the unexpected.

Japan was indeed prepared for a tsunami—it was prepared for a once-in-200-years tsunami.  It wasn’t prepared for a once-in-a-millennium tsunami. Can officials invest in reducing the risk of an event that might or might not occur in the lifetime of their great-grandchildren? If a nuclear reactor is involved, they clearly must.

Talk to us: How can the world prepare better for disaster risks?

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