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East Asia should build resilience through disaster-relief cooperation

by Daisaku Ikeda

Special To The Japan Times

With the third anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake upon us, I would like to offer my most sincere prayers for the peaceful repose of the victims of the earthquake and tsunami. The catastrophe instantly took away from so many people their loved ones and their homes. Still so many are forced to live as evacuees. We must continue to work for the full recovery of the affected areas.

In addition to this catastrophe, recent years have seen increasing incidence of serious destruction from extreme weather events. In 2013 alone, Typhoon Haiyan caused severe damage in the Philippines and Vietnam, and heavy rain brought flooding in Central Europe and India. There have been unprecedented cold spells and heavy snowfalls this year in many parts of the world.

Today at least 110 countries around the world consider the effects of climate change such as extreme weather to be a “serious national security issue.” This represents an important change as, in the past, many governments viewed climate change as just another environmental issue and accorded it a lower priority compared to economic growth.

I would like to propose the establishment of regional cooperative mechanisms focused on reducing damage from extreme weather and disasters, strengthening resilience in regions such as Asia and Africa. These would function alongside global measures developed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Resilience is a term originally derived from physics, describing the elasticity or ability of a material to return to its original form after having been subjected to an external stress. By analogy, resilience has come to be used in a wide range of fields to express the capacity of societies to recover from severe shocks, such as environmental destruction or economic crisis.

In the case of natural disasters, improving resilience means enhancing the entire spectrum of capacities — from efforts to prevent and mitigate damage to measures that aid the afflicted and support the often long and laborious process of recovery.

There are three aspects to the response to extreme weather events and other disasters: disaster preparedness, disaster relief and post-disaster recovery. It is not uncommon for immediate relief assistance to be provided by other countries, but international cooperation in the other two areas still tends to be the exception.

A system of cooperation for responding to extreme weather and other disasters could effectively be built on relations among neighboring countries because, unlike relief efforts immediately following a disaster, preparedness and recovery require sustained cooperation. Such cooperation is facilitated by geographic proximity, as is the sharing of lessons and knowledge on preparedness among countries exposed to similar threats.

I believe that immeasurable value could be brought to an entire region through cooperation regarding extreme weather and disasters among neighboring countries — the possibility of transforming their understanding of and approach to security.

Above all, the unpredictable nature of extreme weather and natural disasters and the sense of vulnerability they provoke can open the door to empathy and solidarity across national borders.

Furthermore, measures to enhance security in this way would not lead to what has been called the “security dilemma,” a vicious cycle in which the steps that one state takes to heighten security are perceived by other states as an increased threat, causing them to respond with similar measures, only leading to further mistrust and tension. The knowledge, technology and know-how that facilitates cooperation in the area of disaster relief is such that its value to all parties is enhanced through sharing. This is in contrast to the secrecy that typically surrounds military-based technologies and information.

I urge that the pioneering initiative for such regional cooperation be taken in Asia, a region severely impacted by disasters. A successful model here will inspire collaborative work to strengthen resilience and recovery assistance in other regions. A foundation for this already exists: The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), whose members include the ASEAN countries as well as China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea among others.

Making disaster relief one of its security priorities, ARF has in place a framework for regularly discussing better ways of cooperation. ARF has conducted three disaster relief exercises to date, consisting of civil-military coordinated drills involving medical, sanitation and water supply teams from various countries.

I would like to propose an Asia recovery resilience agreement, as a framework drawing on the experience of ARF.

Another important avenue for promoting disaster preparedness, an integral aspect of resilience, is face-to-face exchanges and cooperation among local government bodies in various countries through sister-city agreements.

I urge that Japan, China and South Korea take the initiative in mutually strengthening resilience through such relationships. Currently there are 354 sister-city agreements between Japan and China, 151 between Japan and South Korea and 149 between China and South Korea.

Building upon this foundation, ties of friendship and trust could be made even stronger through collaborative efforts to strengthen resilience, including disaster prevention and mitigation.

Members of the younger generation could take the lead in this. Sister-city exchanges and cooperation would then evolve into collective action connecting cities across national borders, eventually creating spaces of peaceful coexistence throughout the region.

If we are incapable of making sincere efforts to cultivate friendly relations with our neighbors, how can we presume to speak of contributing to global peace?

The spirit of mutual aid demonstrated in times of disaster should be the basis of day-to-day relations among neighboring countries. I strongly urge that a Japan-China-South Korea summit be held at the earliest opportunity to initiate dialogue toward this kind of cooperation. Ideally, this should include cooperation on urgent environmental problems.

The 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction to be held in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, in March 2015 should serve as an impetus for further exploration of the modalities of concretizing such cooperation.

By taking up this challenge, we have the opportunity to generate new waves of value creation — not only in Asia, but throughout the world.

Daisaku Ikeda is president of Soka Gakkai International and founder of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research. His 2014 peace proposal can be read at www.sgi.org.