On Feb. 22, 2011, Christchurch, New Zealand’s second city, was struck by a short but shallow 6.3-magnitude tremor that left the city completely incapacitated — an event then-Prime Minister John Key referred to as the country’s “darkest day.”
The quake, which struck a city already weakened by a huge 7.1-magnitude jolt months earlier, crippled the city’s infrastructure, caused major damage to residential areas and killed 185 people, proving to be the second most deadly earthquake to ever hit the island nation.
Then, just over two weeks later, the devastating Tohoku triple disaster occurred here in Japan. For New Zealanders living in this country, the timing of these two tragedies created not just heightened anxiety and stress, but also the ominous feeling that Mother Nature was attacking them on two fronts at once.
“I was getting news about the fallout of the quakes in New Zealand and Japan through both barrels: towns wiped off the map in Tohoku and a death toll in New Zealand’s ‘Garden City,’ ” says Tokyo-based Kiwi Jon Walsh.
Timing was not the only thing that linked these tragedies. Twenty-eight Japanese died in the Christchurch quake, the largest death toll for any foreign nationality.
Although from Auckland in the north, Walsh has relatives in the South Island, and his cousin was visiting Christchurch when the disaster struck. In a cruel twist of fate, the cousin was across the road from the CTV Building, where over half the victims of the disaster died, at the moment the quake hit.
“I heard, from my aunt who lives in Christchurch, he was in the IRD building directly across the road from CTV. He bailed outside when the shaking started, CTV pancaked and he was up on the rubble looking for survivors,” says Walsh.
The Kings Education language school was located on the third floor of the CTV Building, and all the Japanese who perished in the disaster were English students there. His cousin, Walsh says, “apparently pulled out bodies of some of the dead Japanese students from CTV. That was a significant connection for me.”
Hearing these stories from afar at his home in Tokyo, Walsh experienced the frustration and anxiety typical of people watching a disaster they are connected to unfold from a distance.
“That was tough, especially seeing a part of the country I love getting smashed up and not being there to help out,” he says. “It also made me wonder where the next quake was going to hit.” he says.
As fate had it, that next quake hit a lot closer to home than he had ever possibly imagined, on March 11, 2011.
The disasters had an immediate impact on Walsh and led to a sea-change in his attitude.
“I suddenly stopped assuming I would be able to obtain food from a shop every day. If a major quake struck, I figured most people’s emergency supplies would be exhausted within days to a week.
“Then what? People would be forced to ask, beg, assault and steal to secure food and water. In a city with a population the size of Tokyo, that would trigger mass chaos,” he says.
On the other hand, he thought, “It would be quite a different story for those who not only knew how to but were actually able to collect rain water and grow food.”
Walsh decided he needed to build a more sustainable and resource-independent lifestyle, and got to work right away.
His first step was to build a rain collector by draping a large sheet of plastic over the verandah of his family’s house. Before long he had captured and stored 200 liters for gardening and emergency use.
Next he focused on food security, but rather than hoarding cans of soup and instant noodles, he decided to take a more long-term approach and focus on creating a self-sustaining supply of food resources for himself and his family.
He spent the next few months converting the small 6-by-1-meter strip of unused land behind the family home into a garden that became home to vegetables and herbs, many of which ended up on the Walshes’ dinner plates.
Then he decided to take sustainability to the next level, renting a 3-by-5-meter allotment at the local community garden for an annual fee of only ¥5,000.
“I figured the time to start growing food was not after a quake, but right now, and don’t stop, because we never know when the next quake will hit,” he says.
Walsh wasn’t content with simply growing enough food to enable his family, friends and neighbors to be self-sufficient, and in 2012 — despite having no prior professional gardening experience — he launched an urban farming/sustainability venture and began sharing the skills he had learned with others.
When Walsh was working on his own garden patch, he would often bring his daughter, who was 4 years old at the time, along to help out.
“I showed her the basics and she enjoyed doing it, which sparked the idea that I could teach kids, and if she became good at it, she might be able to teach others,” he explains.
Walsh met with the founder of Tokyo International School, then the principal, to discuss the idea of setting up a food-growing program, and by October that year he was hired to kick off the school’s first urban farming teaching program.
“Students loved and were amazed to see little plants sprouting from the seeds they had hand sown themselves,” he says. “Things got even better when they did their first harvest, washed the leaves in water and ate them raw.”
TIS teacher Fiona Broadfoot, who has worked with Walsh for over five years, says his weekly lessons are “hands-on and fun” for her second-grade students, who plant a variety of vegetables — from lettuce and radishes to tomatoes and cucumbers — in a rooftop garden at the school.
“A few weeks later we harvest the produce and … enjoy a salad lunch that we have grown ourselves,” she says.
Broadfoot adds that several students have gone on to create their own gardens on their balconies, applying the skills they have learned in the lessons.
“Knowing how to grow your own food is an essential life skill and Jon sparks the students’ interest,” says Broadfoot. “I feel they are lucky to be introduced to this at such a young age.
Based on positive feedback from the students and school, Walsh’s 10-lesson urban farming program has gradually expanded to 25 lessons. He also teaches classes in sustainability and disaster recovery, and his student body has grown to include teachers, parents, PTA members and business people.
Walsh has long had a keen interest in the environment and had been looking for a way to do something useful in the field of environmental protection.
“I wasn’t finding it — that was, until the twin quakes became the catalyst that launched me into teaching about urban farming, sustainability and disaster recovery, all of which help people become more self-sufficient, which is a key objective,” he says.
“The added bonuses were outrageously good: I quickly discovered this training also helps people eat healthier, stay healthier, gain a greater appreciation of nature, live more sustainable lifestyles and protect the environment.
“And when fresh food and good ideas are given and shared, it naturally brings people together in very positive ways,” Walsh says. “It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.”
Jon Walsh is director of Business Grow (www.businessgrow.net/Green.htm), a Tokyo-based company specializing in providing green business, urban farming and sustainability services, training and advice. Your comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org