U.N. cites ‘synchronous’ infrastructure failure


The March 11 killer tsunami that hit the Tohoku coast following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdowns revealed the fragility of Japan’s infrastructure, according to a recent U.N. report on natural disasters.

The report describes Japan as a country whose infrastructure collapsed in a way more closely associated with less-developed countries and from which lessons can be drawn.

“The earthquake, its aftershocks, the tsunami and the nuclear emergency illustrate what a synchronous failure looks like: a multisectoral system’s collapse,” says the 2011 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction.

It also describes how the disaster disrupted “critical sections” of Japan’s power grid, including the power supply needed to cool the spent fuel at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and how backup systems were disabled, thereby resulting in the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

“The full consequence of the trauma and costs will not be known for years to come,” the report says. “However, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, it became evident that even in this highly sophisticated and well-prepared society, the impact of physical hazards on infrastructure can quickly lead to outcomes normally associated with poorer countries: large-scale food and water shortages, shelter crises and logistical collapse.”

The 2011 floods in Australia, the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this year and Japan’s latest disaster serve as a “reminder that developed countries are also very exposed,” the report says.

The March 11 disaster additionally highlighted that there are “emerging risks and new vulnerabilities associated with the complexity and interdependency of the technological systems on which modern societies depend,” it says.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake caused more than 6,000 deaths in 1995. As 80 percent of the deaths were found to have occurred in collapsed houses, efforts have been under way to make new buildings earthquake resistant. Many of the victims were trapped alive, only to die in the fires that raged unchecked due to broken water mains.

In 2003, a major retrofitting initiative was launched to reduce the vulnerable housing stock by 10 percent by 2013, with two-thirds of the cost of evaluating and 23 percent of the retrofitting costs for buildings constructed before 1981 subsidized by the government, the report says.

Despite the offers, since 2009 only 31,000 homes and 15,000 other buildings had been retrofitted — far less than the 50,000 to 60,000 homes retrofitted before the program began.

“So despite a well-targeted and generous set of policy measures and subsidies, and a high awareness of disaster risk, persuading households to invest in disaster risk reduction remains a challenge,” it says.

Despite Japan’s level of preparedness, which undoubtedly saved many lives, the report says governments are “rarely adequately prepared” through contingency planning or insurance to “cover the probable maximum losses from a low-probability intensive event.”

While the mortality rates from disasters have been going down, disaster-related losses are increasing across all regions. They are critically threatening low- and middle-income economies and even outstripping the wealth creation among richer countries.

Although the chances of being killed in a cyclone or floods in East Asia, for example, are much lower now than two decades ago, the risk of economic loss due to floods has increased by more than 160 percent and to tropical cyclones by 262 percent since 1980 in the high income countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“As the March 2011 nuclear crisis in Japan shows, governments should also invest time and resources in anticipating emerging risks,” the report says.