Earthquake, Tsunami, Meltdown – The Triple Disaster’s Impact on Japan, Impact on the World

Two years ago today, a devastating 9.0 earthquake struck Japan’s east coast, followed minutes later by a massive tsunami with 100 foot waves. Japan’s legendary investment in earthquake-resistant design meant that only about 100 people died in the earthquake itself although almost 20,000 people lost their lives in the tsunami. The economic destruction of the “Triple Disaster” was massive: 138,000 buildings were destroyed and $360 billion in economic losses were incurred. This was the most expensive disaster in human history. Japanese response to the earthquake and tsunami was rapid, effective and life-saving. Some 465,000 people were evacuated after the disaster. But it was the meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant – the world’s worst global nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986 – which caused the most fear and provoked the greatest criticism of the Japanese government’s response.

The Triple Disaster had effects on Japan and on the world.

The economic, political, and social consequences of the Triple Disaster have changed Japan in fundamental ways. The uprooting of entire communities and the large infrastructural losses produced immediate disruptions in Japan’s extensive supply networks. These in turn caused dramatic drops in industrial production that imposed a toll not only on Japan’s economy, but also on the many other countries linked through these production networks. While Japanese companies creatively restored the supply chains in just a few months, the shutdown of the nuclear reactors has had far more damaging long-term economic consequences. Since 3/11 only two nuclear reactors have restarted operations, and the Japanese government has had to resort to large increases in oil imports to make for the gap in electricity supply. Consequently, since 3/11 Japan has experienced record trade deficits, in the order of $78 billion in 2012.

The social and political aftereffects of 3/11 are also formidable. A large citizen movement calling for the abolition of nuclear power in Japan developed in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. The enactment of more exacting safety standards and the development of new patterns of government regulation and monitoring of the nuclear industry have emerged as key topics in the national political debate. On a more positive note, the Triple Disaster also revealed Japan’s most valuable asset: the strength of its civil society. The world watched in awe as Japanese citizens who had lost everything, immediately sprung to help one another. The dignity, creativity, and orderly response of the Japanese population to this mega disaster is indeed the best measure of Japan’s potential. And just as a previous natural disaster, the Kobe earthquake of 1995, helped spur the NGO movement in Japan, March 11, 2011 has seen has seen the activation of scores of non-profit groups and the consolidation of a culture of volunteerism.

However, the reconstruction challenges remain daunting for Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced, the quality of the nuclear cleanup continues to raise concerns, and the financial cost of rebuilding the Tohoku region is staggering (in its latest stimulus budget, the Abe government slated $18 billion dollars for this purpose). Japan’s energy future is also uncertain as the government has yet to issue a long-term strategy that clarifies the role of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix.

The effects of the Japanese disaster went far beyond Japan, of course. It served as a warning that even developed, well-prepared countries are not immune from terrifying disasters. It illustrated the extremely high economic costs of disasters occurring in developed countries and the vulnerabilities that come with urbanization and coastal settlement. It served as a wakeup call to the world that unanticipated disasters (or “black swans“) happen and that those engaged in contingency planning need to be prepared for much more devastating disasters. Internationally, the fallout of the Fukushima meltdowns for the future of nuclear energy has been mixed. While immediately after the accident some governments announced plans to phase out of nuclear energy, others have continued their nuclear planning (although it’s probably true that all nuclear plants worldwide looked more seriously at their safeguard mechanisms in light of Fukushima). Japan’s tragedy has also led to a re-energizing of investing in disaster risk reduction strategies.

In October 2012, the Japanese government and the World Bank co-hosted the Sendai Dialogue to highlight the lessons learned from the disasters and to adopt comprehensive guidance for reducing risk in other parts of the world. To continue the learning of lessons from Japan for disaster risk management in Asia, we are organizing a day-long conference at Brookings on May 10, 2013 to examine the lessons from March 11, 2011, the challenges of disaster risk management in Asia and, more broadly, strategies for mainstreaming disaster risk management in development assistance. We hope in a small way to contribute to continued learning from Japan’s tragedy and to prevent further tragedies resulting from similar disasters which occur elsewhere.