Unknown to many, less than 15 percent of Japan’s coastal municipalities have produced tsunami hazard maps, according to a study in 2006 by Suganuma from the Science and Technology Foresight Center, Japan.
One of the most surprising findings from Suganuma was the evacuation behavior of Kesennuma Municipality during the 2003 Miyagi-ken-oki earthquake, where only 8 percent (of 3,000 respondents) were willing to evacuate; 85 percent did not want to evacuate (41 percent never intended to evacuate); and the rest joined the emergency response.
What we have seen from the visual media concerning the situation in Kesennuma is that the municipality was severely damaged by the tsunami. However, this has been recognized as a “backward” step compared to previous studies (thanks to longitudinal surveys — at least four surveys on disaster preparedness conducted by the government of Japan between 1991 and 2002).
There is no doubt that Japan has been seen as ideal in its management of seismic and tsunami activity during recent decades — not because it is a perfect guru, but because it has advanced itself above other nations in regards to the science (and to a significant extent policy and practice at a local level) in earthquake and tsunamis risk management.
However, given the possibility that the media may amplify the scale of events, the vast majority of viewers may get the wrong messages from the visual media (TV and the Internet) by believing there is nothing a human system can do to avoid a catastrophe before such events. The nature of these events may receive more attention than social-economic factors that shape both pre events (the placement of people and infrastructures in the coastal areas) and the events (the hit of the tsunamis on the people and infrastructures.
The catastrophe can actually be best explained by the existing theory of disaster risk studies, based on the fundamental laws that the catastrophe is not only due to the 9.0 SR magnitude earthquakes that triggered tsunamis but also because the way the people, the infrastructure and the wealth have been placed in the tsunami zones have in fact led to high vulnerability to disaster risks.
A colleague from Banda Aceh asked me via Facebook whether the present disasters can be good or bad for the future of disaster risk reduction? He asked “What can I explain to the people of Aceh as a disaster mitigation advocate, as I used Japan as the perfect model for a tsunami-ready society?” What is the best answer to these questions?
Therefore, what lessons can other tsunami-prone regions around in the world learn here? The point is that Japan has been prepared for tsunamis of smaller scales. Some brief arguments regarding the relative success of Japanese disaster preparedness can still be mentioned: First, its coastal towns and cities are often densely populated, which gives means there is a higher level of exposure to disaster risks. Second, the recent Japanese disasters were not simply a problem because the disaster prevention/mitigation failed, but because there are limits to prevention and mitigation — especially when the exposure to risk is neither reduced nor considered.
Modern coastal cities can hardly reduce to zero their exposure to natural hazards such as tsunamis. Therefore, the only option available is to creatively develop a voluntary exposure policy (e.g. to develop plan that sets out areas and infrastructure that can be hit by tidal waves).
Third, there is an important message unseen by the uninformed public: the avoided losses resulting from seismic risk management policy and earthquake warning systems are of huge benefit and the vast majority of Japanese buildings safely resisted the recent massive earthquake. This means its investment in disaster mitigation paid off as the Japanese earthquake early warning system gave households enough time to switch off gas lines to avoid more fires.
In future disaster reduction efforts in Japan could be improved significantly because the informed policy makers may take the best lessons from recent events to form consistent and more sustainable reforms in disaster reduction policy. In future we can expect Japan to demonstrate a more solid knowledge-based reconstruction and disaster-reduction policy, as well as stronger policy enforcement. This would include assurances that the future approval of nuclear facilities in earthquake-prone regions would require more serious consideration.
I have almost no doubt about the future of disaster risk reduction (DRR) in Japan, but I am very worried about that of developing nations. Volatility of political will in regards to disaster management is a global phenomenon.
Policy makers and politicians tend to play down the importance of investing in disaster reduction. Some have even manipulated religious texts to delay action in disaster reduction.
However, volatility on the part of administrations’ commitments to disaster reduction is not a problem exclusive to the developing world. Recent cuts in spending from the Department for International Development (DFID) to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction is evidence of such volatility in DRR commitments that may create a big step backward in global commitments to reducing disaster risks through the Hyogo Framework for Action, the global blueprint for disaster reduction.
This is in contrast to the UK Prime Minister’s statement that “We have had a terrible reminder of the destructive power of nature” which implicitly conveys that natural hazards cannot be underestimated.
Unnecessary delays in spending for risk reduction will eventually lead to bigger donor losses in future. How many disasters are needed for our policy makers to realize the need to reduce disaster risks?
The writer is an Indonesian research fellow at the Ash Center, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University and the co-moderator of NTT Academia Forum. This is a personal opinion.