Disaster risk discussed at conference organized by Harvard students

Harvard event speaker tells students that reducing risk is an investment

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

The lesson to be learned from devastating natural disasters is how important it is to prepare for them before they happen, experts at a panel discussion organized by the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR) stressed Tuesday.

Always a hot topic after the fact, disaster preparedness quickly loses its urgency and even over time is seen as a waste of money, according to Satoru Nishikawa, former deputy director for disaster preparedness and international cooperation at the prime minister’s office.

“When a disaster happens, everybody yells, especially the politicians and mass media, that you have to do something. After two or three peaceful years, the government, especially the politicians, they tend to forget about it” because it does not really bring in cash, Nishikawa told an HPAIR panel discussion on risk planning in Asia.

HPAIR is a student-run organization at Harvard University that holds yearly conferences in the Asia-Pacific region attended by students from around the region and renowned speakers from various fields.

“We always emphasize that disaster risk reduction should be seen as investment and not an expenditure,” said Nishikawa, who has held a number of posts related to disaster management.

While the Japanese public tends to lose interest in disaster prevention after some years of calm, the government has shown some foresight.

After thousands of casualties from huge typhoons in the 1940s and 1950s, including one that killed more than 5,000 people in 1959, the government took steps to deal with them better.

Similarly, more quake-resistant buildings and houses were constructed following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.

Although the giant tsunami of March 11, 2011, caught the nation off guard, office buildings and high-rise apartments withstood the quake that triggered it, said Nishikawa.

Sugeng Triutomo, former deputy chief minister for the National Disaster Management Authority in Indonesia, said his government didn’t get serious about disaster management until the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

It’s hard, he said, to get politicians to commit to disaster preparedness until they experience a calamity. If not for the 2004 tsunami, Indonesia might still not have dealt with the issue.

HPAIR held the event in Tokyo for the first time in nine years after students at Keio University and the University of Tokyo successfully bid for it.