Natural Disaster Response in Japan and Fiji

My work with natural disasters has largely taken me to developing countries—like Haiti, Indonesia and Central America. My trip to Japan a few weeks ago offered interesting insights on how a large and powerful country deals with a major natural disaster. The facts of the Great East Japan earthquake are well-known: a powerful 9.0 earthquake on 11 March followed minutes later by a tsunami with waves over 100 feet, destroying 120,000 buildings and causing over $300 billion in economic damages. The final casualty figures aren’t in, but are likely to top 20,000. It’s a testament to Japan’s pioneering work in developing earthquake-resistant construction that only 100 people were killed in the earthquake itself. The tsunami was the big killer.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” an international disaster expert told me. “The scale of the devastation across 300 miles is unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it.” “But wait a minute, you worked in the 2004 tsunami, right?” I asked. He nodded and went on: “Yes, in the tsunami, in the 2005 Pakistani earthquake, in Haiti last year, in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis in 2008—I’ve worked in all the major disasters for the past 20 years. That’s what I do. And I tell you, I’ve never seen anything like the scale of destruction I’ve seen here.”

But in spite of the disaster two months earlier, Tokyo looks normal—the subway is crowded, the streets are bustling. It takes me a while to notice that the air conditioning is off in the metro, that many of the escalators are not running, that the halls in the office buildings I visit are dark and that there seem to be a lot of Japanese businessmen who aren’t wearing coats and ties. The effects of the damaged nuclear facilities are felt on a daily basis. What sets the Japanese disaster apart from every other disaster that has occurred so far is the damage to the nuclear power plants and resulting leaks of radioactive material. 

While I am there, the government announces that more nuclear power plants will be shut down for testing and urges residents to conserve energy further. Also while I am there, (feeling guilty for using the air conditioning on in my hotel room) the government reverses itself and says that there will be no new nuclear power plants built in the country. Japan presently gets about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. 

Everyone I talk with (an admittedly unrepresentative sample) about the relief effort is more or less positive about the Japanese response. Neighbors affected by the disaster took care of each other, donations poured in from the public, and Japanese organizations responded quickly and efficiently. The Japanese Red Cross alone deployed 600+ medical teams to affected areas. There are still about 100,000 people living in temporary shelters, but this is down from 400,000. And there are plans to move everyone out of the shelters by September. But building houses takes time and in every disaster I’ve seen, it raises difficult issues, such as whether to allow rebuilding in areas which may be unsafe, about how to establish titles when land registries are destroyed, about how to provide housing for those who rented their accommodations, about who gets priority when housing is built, about whether to build transitional housing or invest the money into permanent homes. 

Housing always raises difficult issues—a year after the earthquake in Haiti, a million people were still living in IDP camps, most under tattered tarps. But Haiti and Japan are opposite ends of a spectrum. The plans in Japan seem ambitious, but this is a developed country where people who lost everything in the disaster are beginning to receive appliance packages (including a refrigerator, microwave oven, television, rice cooker, washing machine  and  electric thermos.) I’ve never seen a disaster before where standard relief items include a television and washing machine. But this is a developed country.

When I asked a senior Japanese official “what was his biggest headache with the earthquake response,” his response surprised me: “how to deal with the international offers of assistance.” As of late May, the Japanese government reported receiving offers of assistance from 159 countries and 43 international organizations. Like the United States after Hurricane Katrina (as Anne Richard points out in her wonderful little book, Role Reversal), the Japanese government and NGOs don’t really know how to respond to the offers of assistance nor to the delegations seeking to visit the affected area. Japan is a major donor country after all, but the offers of assistance pour in from rich and poor countries alike. The government of Kenya, for example, recently announced it was donating $1 million to Japan for earthquake response. Kenya is the largest recipient of Japanese official development assistance. This shift from being a donor to a recipient is a tricky thing.

But as this year has shown—in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United States—natural disasters occur in rich countries as well as in poor ones and governments of developed countries would do well to get their systems in order—including how to deal with offers of assistance—before disasters strike.

I traveled to Japan from Fiji where we had organized, together with the UN, a workshop on natural disasters, climate change and human rights for representatives of seven Pacific Island governments and aid agencies. “When the alert went out that the earthquake in Japan could lead to a tsunami through the whole Pacific region,” a representative from Tuvalu explained, “we had no place to run. The highest point on our islands is 3 meters. There is simply no place to escape a tsunami. We sat at home with our families and we prayed.” The tsunami didn’t materialize this time, but future tsunamis can’t be ruled out. And it’s almost certain that climate change will mean both more and more intense natural disasters in the Pacific. 

In the United States, we tend to think of the effects of climate change as occurring in the future. But the Pacific Islands are already feeling the effects. For example, king tides are getting stronger and destroying agricultural lands. As a result, the people of the Carteret islands, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, are already looking for places on the mainland to resettle as their island can no longer support them. Rising sea levels cause increasing salination of water which is likely to be a major factor in pushing people to leave their communities. Participants in our workshop were passionate in their discussions of climate change—how to prepare for it, how to respond to its effects. Some talked of building seawalls, some talked of sending their kids to school in Australia, some talked of reviving indigenous knowledge about predicting disasters. It is more than ironic that these small countries will likely be the first to lose their countries, identities and way of life due to climate change caused by emissions—emissions produced by others, living far from their islands.

Natural disasters also cause displacement and participants talked about the effects of displacement in their countries. In 2009 a tsunami in Samoa displaced some 5,300 people—a relatively small number, but 2.5 percent of the country’s population. In comparison, Hurricane Katrina displaced about a million people—less than 3 tenths of one percent of the U.S. population. A 2007 tsunami in the Solomon Islands affected almost 5 percent of the population—a corresponding impact on the United States would leave about 15 million people affected by a disaster.

In Papua New Guinea, a 2004 volcanic eruption led to the evacuation of 9,000 people from Manam Island. Eighty-five percent of the island is now covered by lava which means that the 9,000 displaced could not return to their homes. The story of the Manam Islanders is a sad one. Provided with temporary shelter on the mainland (shelter which has deteriorated over time), the displaced faced discrimination and violence by their host community. The government seemed unable to find a solution which would allow the displaced islanders to restore their livelihoods and settle into new communities. Last year, in the absence of alternative solutions, about 3,000 of the islanders returned to their ravaged island. In January of this year, rumblings of volcanic activity made it clear that the island is still unsafe and the government announced again that it was working to find alternative sites for the island’s people. A UN official quoted a Manam Islander: “I’ve been listening to words for a very long time. My stomach is already full of words.”

If after seven years, homes can’t be found for the 9,000 Manam islanders, how in the world will the region cope if, as predicted, 1.2 million Pacific Islanders are displaced by the effects of climate change in the next forty years?