Questioning assumptions about disaster risk


Special To The Japan Times

The anniversaries of disaster events are like links in a chain of memories that remind us of how precious life is and of our exposure to man-made and natural hazards.

The fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami is an occasion to remember those who lost their lives in that tragic sequence of events and to raise awareness of the dangers of synchronized failure in our technology-dependent world. It was not a coincidence that the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction decided to formally launch the consultations on a new global agreement for reducing disaster losses on the first anniversary of this disaster and that U.N. member-states should meet in the equivalent of the tsunami’s ground zero — Sendai — three years later, to adopt the outcome.

The events of March 11, 2011, have profoundly shaped the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, forcing the world to look beyond the self-evident threat of natural hazards that is the usual purview of disaster risk management.

The earthquake disrupted the power grid, including the power supply needed to cool the spent fuel, at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The tsunami then struck the plant, disabling the unprotected backup generators. The reactors suffered a meltdown, displacing 100,000 people and had a major impact on the nuclear power industry both in Japan and around the world.

The earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear emergency illustrate what a cascading disaster looks like: a multi-sectoral systems collapse combining both natural and man-made hazards in unprecedented fashion.

This and a host of other major disaster events, including a growing number of climate-related disasters and epidemic threats, inspired the architects of the Sendai Framework to extend the brief of disaster risk management to small-scale and large-scale disasters caused by both natural and man-made hazards as well as related environmental, technological and biological hazards and risks.

What does this mean in reality?

Fundamentally it means avoiding the creation of new risk and reducing the existing stock of risk. In the case of a nuclear power plant in a tsunami zone this would mean, as the Japanese government has noted, “adequate consideration of the recurrence of large-scale earthquakes in relation to a safety goal to be attained.” In short, all possible effort needs to be made to tackle underlying risk drivers whatever they might be.

It’s not always easy to be wise after a major disaster event. In most circumstances, if governance arrangements and capacities for risk reduction are strengthened, this prepares the ground for addressing other risk drivers in a coherent and effective fashion.

For instance, five years ago Japan quickly identified the need to “review regulatory and administrative frameworks on nuclear safety” and we have seen the result in action over the past week with the shutdown of a nuclear reactor while safety checks are done.

Accountability for reducing and managing disaster risk is a clear theme running through the Sendai Framework. Disaster risk reduction, if it is to be done well, requires coordination and the full engagement of all state institutions of an executive and legislative nature at national and local levels.

Japan is consistently ranked in the top five most disaster-prone countries in the world. Over the last 100 years, some 200,000 people have lost their lives in calamitous events such as the Great Kanto (1923) and the Great Hanshin (1995) earthquakes. Millions of people have been affected by disasters and economic losses have been enormous.

These events underline why the Sendai Framework has four targets which seek substantial reductions in disaster-related mortality, the numbers of people affected by disasters, economic losses and damage to critical infrastructure including schools, hospitals and public utilities.

The Sendai Framework also promotes increasing the number of countries with national and local disaster-risk reduction strategies; enhanced international cooperation and a substantial increase in the availability of, and access to, multi-hazard early warning systems.

Clearly Japan is already playing an important role in promoting and facilitating the achievement of all these targets. In particular, the tsunami-affected areas are leading the way in building better and demonstrating how important it is to have risk-reduction strategies at the local level, such as the pine forests that are being planted as green breakwaters against future tidal waves, and proving that disaster risk reduction also has many quality of life co-benefits.

Japan is among the most active nations in sharing its disaster risk-reduction experience and expertise with other countries, including many less developed states. The government is also responsible for an important new addition to the international calendar following the U.N. General Assembly decision to recognize Nov. 5 as World Tsunami Awareness Day. As the fifth anniversary also signifies, remembrance and awareness raising are important to banish complacency in disaster-prone parts of the world.

The Sendai Framework’s predecessor, the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) was adopted in 2005 just weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami killed some 227,000 people. Over 120 countries participated in the last HFA reporting cycle (2013-2015) detailing their progress in reducing disaster risk.

This regular voluntary monitoring of implementation of these agreements is evidence that a culture of disaster risk reduction is spreading across the world and explains why many countries are experiencing success in reducing mortality from climate-related disasters, which now account for 90 percent of all disasters linked to natural hazards.

Almost 2 billion people have been affected in major recorded disaster events over the last 10 years, including Hurricane Katrina, Cyclone Nargis, the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake, the 2011 floods in Thailand, the Pakistan and Chinese earthquakes, and the current droughts in Africa. Exposure and vulnerability continue to grow in many parts of the world.

What disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami have taught us is that assumptions about what creates hazard have to be constantly assessed and revised in line with the pace of social and economic development. In our technology-dependent world, risk is a great equalizer and does not always distinguish between rich and poor.

Robert Glasser is head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General.