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Using technology to lessen disaster risk

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Staff Writer

Technology and education are both necessary to reduce the risk of disasters.

Living on an earthquake-prone archipelago, Japanese have a very high awareness of disaster risk reduction. Japanese companies and academia are constantly working to develop technology and know-how, something that can be quite useful to foreign countries facing similar disaster risks.

The following are just a few examples of Japanese efforts to tackle disasters.

Seismic isolation

It is no exaggeration to say that Japan is the most technologically advanced country in the world when it comes to making structures earthquake resistant as the archipelago has a long history of seismic events.

Construction companies have to meet strict structural strength standards and the business of developing disaster-prevention technologies has flourished as foreign countries try to learn from Japan.

“Goju-no-to,” which literally translates as “five-layered tower” and an architectural technique seen in traditional temples, is proof that Japanese quake resistance technology dates back to medieval times.

It has a thick central pillar that is not directly connected to the floors of each of the five stories. This means the pillar and the floors do not shake in the same direction, and the shaking of each element offsets each other, mitigating the amount of shaking.

Medieval Japanese came up with the technique at a time when wood was pretty much the only material available for building. Even though reinforced concrete and other stronger materials are now the norm, construction companies still use the lesson from medieval times — isolating quake vibration.

Reinforced concrete helps makes structures resistant to quakes, but it does not reduce shaking. Seismic isolation systems reduce shaking by placing rubber, oil or other substances between a structure and the ground, using it as a cushion to absorb tremor.

“Japan is by far the most advanced country in seismic isolation technology, because of people’s awareness of earthquake risk,” said Nakahide Kani, an advisor to the Japan Society of Seismic Isolation.

Japan has 7,600 buildings using seismic isolation systems, the most in the world, followed by China with about 3,600, he said. The third is either Italy or Russia with roughly 4,000 to 7,000, he said, adding that Japan is the only country with reliable statistics, but he is sure Japan has the highest number. If Italy or Russia has 400 to 700, they would have more than China.

Japan also has advanced technology in strengthening structural materials, he said. Reinforced concrete is strengthened with iron bars and Japanese companies have the know-how to create the best mix, he said.

New Zealand, another quake-prone archipelago, is the origin of quake resistance technology, and Japan learned seismic isolation from New Zealand during 1970s, Kani said. Japan then improved upon it and made Japan the leader in such technology, he said.

Of the 7,600 structures with seismic isolation systems in Japan, 100 were existing structures with systems added later. Installing the systems required lifting the buildings to place the equipment beneath them.

Such work takes specialized know-how and technology and Japanese companies have business opportunities of advising overseas construction companies on how to do the work, if building owners are willing to spend the money, he said, adding that those on the U.S. West Coast also have similar knowhow and technology.

Robot technology

Japan is also working on applying its advanced robot technology to disaster recovery.

Caterpillar-shaped rescue robot Quince was deployed into a heavily irradiated nuclear reactor building at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant between June and October 2011 to collect data. Quince, developed by the Chiba Institute of Technology, Tohoku University and the International Rescue System Institute, was very helpful as no human was able to enter the building due to the high radiation. Information gathered by Quince is critical to Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the plant, as it plans the dismantling of the reactors.

Japan also has marine and airborne robots to collect data after disasters. After the quakes and tsunami on March 11, 2011, robots were deployed to search the ocean for bodies and other objects washed away by tsunami. Drones were deployed to search for survivors and bodies in areas of landslides and other disasters.

“In the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 and the Great East Japan Earthquake, everybody said they didn’t have enough information,” said Satoshi Tadokoro, chief of the Human-Robot Informatics Laboratory at Tohoku University, who is also the chairman of the International Rescue System Institute. “That’s where robots can help.”

“I would say Japan is in the top three in the world in robot technology. Japan has a strong presence in the field,” he said.

Realistically, though, robots are used more to collect data, than to save human lives.

It is widely known that the first 72 hours are critical to save lives after a disaster. In order for robots to, for example, get past debris-clogged roads to pinpoint survivors after earthquakes, the robots will have to be available soon after the disasters.

But it’s not really the case in Japan, nor in the world, said Tohoku University professor Satoshi Tadokoro, who is also the chairman of the International Rescue System Institute.

“We do have the technology that may help save people’s lives. The challenge is having the robots ready anywhere, anytime,” Tadokoro said. “Users also have to be familiar with the robots.”

Users would include paramedics, police and Self-Defense Forces officers. But robots are generally too expensive for many municipalities and users have to be trained to be ready for unexpected disasters.

Additionally, there is room for technological advancements to make robots better able to save lives.

“There are still many cases in which robots and drones cannot go where we want them to go to collect data. More lives may be saved if technology is more advanced,” he said, hinting that researchers should keep developing technology to allow robots to better navigate piles of debris and fly in confined spaces. Technology to get clear visual data in rain, fog and other difficult conditions will also help, he added.

Tadokoro’s lab is developing such technology. Besides Quince, it has developed the so-called Active Scope Camera, a fiber-optic scope that seeks out tiny cracks rescuers would be unable to explore. It was used when a building under construction collapsed due to an accident in the U.S.

Tadokoro urged the government to encourage communication between robot researchers and users so as to familiarize users with robots, subsidize rescue robot development and eliminate political restrictions hindering robot operations.

Miracle of Kamaishi

Technology alone cannot save human lives from disasters. Ongoing regular training can sometimes be the most important factor in survival.

In Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, hit by massive tsunami in the March 11, 2011, disaster, survival education saved the lives of almost 3,000 elementary and junior-high school students.

Of the nearly 1,000 victims in Kamaishi, only five were school-aged children, and they happened to be away from school on the day of one of the largest disasters in Japan’s recent history.

On the day, students reacted swiftly in line with what they had learned in the city’s disaster education program that had been running for several years.

They were organized in reacting to tsunami warnings and evacuated quickly. That led other people in the community following suit. Additionally, older students helped the younger ones as they moved to higher ground.

According to Toshitaka Katada, a civil engineering professor at Gunma University, who supervises the city’s disaster education program, repeated drills in non-disaster times play a crucial part in enabling students to act orderly and quickly in case of emergency. Such education enabled them to help each other and others in the community.

Katada also makes sure children do not rely on hazard maps based on past disasters because nature’s power can never be overestimated. He also encourages children to be the first ones to evacuate in the event of an emergency so that they can be role models for the community, a theory that proved to be effective in saving many lives in Kamaishi.


Download the PDF of this UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction