Can disaster preparedness keep pace with technological change?

A doll amidst rubble and debris in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Ofunato, Japan in 2011. Even a developed country like Japan can suffer from large scale devastation in disasters. Photo by: Matthew M. Bradley / U.S. Navy / CC BY

The area around the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan has been made strange by abandonment.

On a recent visit, I walked down eerie, empty streets, passed homes from which families fled in terror of a nuclear meltdown and shops that would be silent perhaps for years to come. And as I traveled across the region, it was obvious that the effects of the disaster varied from village to village — it was far more complicated than the “neat and tidy” hazard map with its concentric circles radiating out from the plant — and that we needed a more comprehensive map which could account for geography, weather conditions and the changing nature of a nuclear disaster.

In the other areas devastated by the earthquake and tsunami  further north in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, I saw the enormous efforts people are making to restore some normality to their lives and the difficulties that need to be overcome in rebuilding safe homes for hundreds of thousands of survivors.

Even in a developed country such as Japan, well used to earthquakes and tsunamis, the scale of the devastation suffered in the disaster of 2011 brings home the monumental task which we face in ensuring that we are better prepared for future disasters — not just the predictable but the unthinkable.

Lessons learned

There are a number of key lessons from the triple disaster which we are learning and which we think deserve careful attention:

1. Active community engagement, and public education and awareness are vital for effective disaster risk reduction. Without them, the loss of life would have been even worse.

2. All stakeholders — government, civil society and the private sector — need to work in close coordination to prepare for any disasters that may lie in wait.

3. Humanitarian assistance should concentrate not just on responding to immediate needs, but in building up capacity in local communities to help keep themselves safe.

4. Contingency planning for all sorts of scenarios — however extreme — along with regular simulations and drills, is absolutely vital.

If preparedness is essential in Japan, it is even more critical  in a country such as the Philippines, which I visited a few months ago in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

Preparing is crucial

This is about saving lives, but also about making sure that the progress in people’s livelihoods, painstakingly carved out by economic development and hard work, is safeguarded to the greatest extent by disaster preparedness.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is doing its part. We reached more than 23 million people in 2012 with disaster risk reduction measures worldwide, spending more than 109 million Swiss francs. But while our network now spans 189 countries, with 15 million active volunteers, we urgently need more resources, spent not just on disaster relief but on disaster risk reduction.

And this is a task which we must approach not just from the perspective of casualties and economic loss, but also taking into account the social and psychological effects of a disaster. National governments must commit to strengthening communities’ resilience and integrating disaster risk reduction into their national legislation with the appropriate allocation of finances to put in place effective preparedness measures.

Back in 2009, for example, governments set a target of spending 10 percent of humanitarian relief funds on disaster risk reduction. They should redouble their efforts to meet such targets. In an era of economic austerity, it makes sense not just in terms of protecting human lives, but in monetary terms as well. Cost benefit analyses of our disaster risk reduction work show that for every dollar spent on risk reduction, more than $19 is saved.

These should be among the key priorities as leaders think about how to follow up on the Hyogo Framework for Action and how to update the Sustainable Development Goals, which were originally set out to be achieved by the millennium. A key forum for strengthening these commitments will come next year at the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, and we should be mindful of the lessons of the disaster which struck so close by this northeastern city.

All must do their part

The challenges are enormous and they are not standing still. The Fukushima accident highlighted the need for preparedness on a whole new level of nuclear and technological disasters which could be waiting to happen, from chemical explosions to gas pipelines crisscrossing areas prone to earthquakes.

We in Japan have seen the practical issues at first hand as they unfolded in Fukushima. The Japanese Red Cross Society medical team faced the agonizing situation of having to withdraw from relief activity because they did not have appropriate equipment to measure the radiation; many people were actually evacuated towards areas where radiation levels were higher; Fukushima children were bullied at school after evacuating to other prefectures because people didn’t have a proper understanding of what radiation is. All this could have been avoided, had we been better prepared and people had a better understanding of radiation risks.

Since Fukushima, the Japanese Red Cross Society has set up an information center to collect our experiences and lessons from the disaster. They have drawn up an operational manual for their doctors and nurses to use in case of nuclear accidents and the IFRC has been working to draw together the considerable experience we have of nuclear accidents — especially after the Chernobyl disaster — and make it available whenever and wherever it is needed.

But governments and all of civil society need to do their part as well. We need to ensure that the international framework under which we try to keep people safe from disasters for the next decade is adapted to our era of climate change, new technological threats and growing inequality.

Otherwise we will certainly let down the people of Japan, of the Philippines, and many other places; people who depend on us for leadership and support as they face an increasingly unpredictable world.

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We have been here before: Lessons in resilience after Typhoon Haiyan

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About the author

  • Tadateru Konoé

    Tadateru Konoé is president of the Japanese Red Cross Society. Since 2005, Tadateru has dedicated his entire professional career to domestic and international Red Cross and Red Crescent activities.