1 month after the quake: A Devex update about Japan relief efforts

A search and rescue team arrives in downtown Ofunato to assist in finding missing residents. Photo by: dvidshub / CC BY

“2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011” will remain etched with profound sorrow into Japanese people’s memories. That’s when magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked northeastern Japan, causing a nearly 40-meter-high tsunami which swept away people, homes and entire towns.

The devastating natural disaster claimed more than 12,000 lives, and the number keeps rising as almost 15,000 remain missing, presumably dead. Nearly 158,000 people are trying to survive in makeshift homes and evacuation sites. As if that wasn’t enough, the Japanese government is simultaneously confronting one of the worst nuclear crises in the world as radiation leaks into the air and into the ocean from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Japan is among the world’s leading economies and known for its earthquake preparedness. Yet, the scale of the calamity is unprecedented – the affected areas stretch over seven prefectures, and Japan is facing one of the biggest crises since World War II. The government estimates the loss at between $188 billion and $293 billion; reconstruction could take years.

More than 130 countries have offered support, and some relief teams are already operating on the ground along with Japanese rescue squads, police and national defense forces. Hundreds of local non-governmental organizations are also engaged in providing services to disaster victims and meeting other demands.

But the situation in the affected areas is changing daily. Almost a month after the fateful earthquake, Kotaro Takahashi, managing director of Devex Japan, spoke about the relief efforts and how the global aid community can help.

How did Japan’s aid community react immediately after the earthquake and tsunami hit the country on March 11?

The first reaction was swift as the disaster happened within the country. Many aid actors, especially in the non-governmental sector, are operating on the ground. Usually in an emergency, local governments act as a main coordinator of relief efforts, but this time the local function is lost or weakened, so NGOs are filling the spot and are playing an important role.

In the beginning, the situation was quite harsh. Major organizations such as Japan Red Cross began working first; small to medium-size organizations followed. As I said, they are working on the ground, helping the displaced people, while they are collecting necessary supplies and donations. They’re doing literally everything they can do.

Japanese professionals in international cooperation field also responded fast. Some who are in-between assignments are entering the affected areas as volunteers while others, who are currently engaged, are taking a time-off to join the relief efforts.

Outside the aid community, sectors that have transport capabilities, such as truck associations and clothing companies, are getting involved. Everyone is active supporting.

Can you give some examples of how Devex members have been contributing to emergency relief?

Save the Children Japan began relief work immediately after the quake hit. They have provided household, hygiene and back-to-school kits to children and have opened a total of 18 “child-friendly spaces” in three prefectures. There, children can draw, play balls and cards, just do the things they used to do every day, which prompts them to get back to normalcy. This also helps their parents to have time to collect necessary information and prepare themselves for reconstructing their life. SCJ is in the process of establishing field offices there and is expanding the child-friendly space operation. Because of this, they are aggressively recruiting to fill the needs. Also, Devex members like CARE and World Vision are active on the ground.

How has the international response especially from the global aid community been perceived in Japan?

Very appreciative. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, currently 134 nations have offered to provide support in the way of goods and fund.

What goods and services are most urgently needed in Japan right now?

In a short term, clothing, things to keep people warm like blankets, food, medicine, daily necessities, information, access to media, temporary housing, security… the list is endless. After the situation calms down, mental support as well as special care for the elderly will be important while things like jobs, houses, infrastructure will also be crucial.

What can the international humanitarian and development community do right now to help Japan recover?

For a while, the main goal is to save life. A variety of actors, including NGOs, are working to provide food, supplies and funds appropriately and continuously. When Japan moves on to the next phase to rebuild the affected areas, there will be a huge demand in countless fields such as energy, urban planning, infrastructure, education, medical, insurance…

Countries and NGOs with an experience in reconstruction efforts can provide help greatly as Japan had not experienced a devastation of this scale for 60-plus years. Yet, at this point, the Japanese side is not fully ready to accept a large flow of international humanitarian workers due to issues such as language. The Japan Civil Network for Disaster Relief in East Japan, a network that coordinates NGOs in the relief efforts, formed its international team only recently, for instance. The Japan Platform, or JPF, and Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation, or JANIC, are now in charge of providing information, matching international NGOs and coordinating work.

What may individual consultants and aid workers do to help?

There are various ways especially those who have experience in disaster relief can help, in areas such as logistics, human resources and other administrative affairs. Professionals who have an experience in managing donations transparently can contribute also. The important thing to keep in mind is that they should be flexible in providing support of any kind necessary on the ground, even out of their specialized field. The situation is changing every minute and so are the needs. Skilled nurses might be asked to give hands for a soup kitchen, for an example.

For those who wish to donate, JPF collects donations and shares them with smaller organizations. Devex has run an article to point out where else you can give.

>> Ways to Donate to Japan, Pacific Relief Efforts

How is Devex helping?

Aid workers and other professionals from in and out of Japan have contacted us, saying they want to get involved, and we are trying to match them with the recruiting requests from our members on the ground as soon as we can. [So far they are all Japanese.] On our website, we collect and disseminate the latest information related to the relief efforts. In the near future, I think we can work as a coordinator between member individuals and organizations by handpicking skilled professionals among our members and introducing them to organizations from our end.

Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?

In Japan, NGOs have long been considered minor actors and most operations have been led by national or local government. That is changing fast. NGOs are reaching out in areas where governments have not been able to go. Japan needs to build an equal partnership with NGOs now so that they can collaborate and tackle the outstanding issues together.

Find development professionals in Japan, and organization operating in Japan. Visit Devex Japan.

About the author