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Japan’s Resilience Lessons

NEW YORK – Buried in the coverage of last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake is a success story of which the world should not lose sight, because it tells us much about how we manage risk in the twenty-first century. It is the story of how the Japanese people, through centuries of memory and shared experience, have built up their resilience to natural disasters. Indeed, as the sea reared up to ravage the country’s coast on March 11, 2011, more than 90% of the population in the affected areas had already fled to safety.

That safety was further endangered by the meltdown of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, a catastrophe with which Japan is still coping. Nevertheless, the country can take heart that so many of its people, children in particular, are alive today because of early-warning systems, safety drills, and a strong emphasis on disaster-risk reduction in the school curriculum.

The world has been paying greater attention to reducing loss of life from disasters. And yet, while mortality risk relative to population size is falling, the lives of more than 200 million people continue to be disrupted each year by disasters. Moreover, economic costs are soaring, with insured losses reaching a record-high $380 billion last year.

Over the last 40 years, the world’s population has almost doubled, to seven billion, but global exposure to tropical cyclones has almost tripled. More than 100 million people experience floods each year, and roughly 370 million live in earthquake-prone cities.

Given the rapid pace of urbanization, and the technology base that a well-resourced city requires, the risk of “synchronous failure” is growing constantly, as the Great East Japan Earthquake demonstrated. The earthquake disrupted critical sections of Japan’s electricity grid, including the power supply needed to cool the spent fuel at Fukushima, while the tsunami disabled back-up generators at the plant, resulting in the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986.

The broader lesson should be clear: when a natural hazard wreaks havoc on a power grid, there is a high potential for cascading impacts on dependent systems, such as banking and finance, government services, transport and communications, and drinking water. Moreover, as new drivers of risk emerge and interact, longstanding assumptions about disasters are being called into question. In 2010, western Russia experienced July temperatures almost 8°C above the long-term average, which, combined with lack of rainfall, led to wildfires across 800,000 hectares of parched fields, forests, and peat lands.

Moscow and its surroundings, with a population of more than 15 million inhabitants, were covered by smoke for many weeks. People with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, the elderly, and the very young were particularly affected. During and after the wildfires, Russia’s mortality rate rose 18%.

Floods in Thailand last year threw 700,000 people out of work and had knock-on economic effects around the world. The Economist reports that American bank JP Morgan has estimated that the disaster set back global industrial production by a surprisingly large 2.5%. Economic exposure to floods is increasing faster than per capita GDP in all regions.

Human happiness and economic well-being are also being affected by climate change, which may be contributing to what could turn out to be a third consecutive year of drought in sub-Saharan Africa – and this amid growing food-security concerns in a world with one billion underfed people.

Much of the world was shaken from its lethargy on disaster preparedness by the Asian tsunami in December 2004. The following month, 168 countries adopted an international blueprint for disaster-risk reduction at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, hosted by the city of Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, the scene in 1995 of one of Japan’s worst earthquakes, with more than 5,000 lives lost.

The resultingamp Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015amp was a watershed moment in establishing disaster-risk reduction and climate-change adaptation as hallmarks of good governance. Most of the countries that stand to benefit from the Hyogo Framework do not have Japan’s long historical experience of battling natural hazards. The Framework can help them to understand their exposure and vulnerability in today’s hazardous world, and to set priorities for action in developing a culture of prevention.

That is why, as the Hyogo Framework comes to an end, it is important to start thinking now about its replacement, which will guide us through the thicket of risks emerging in the urbanized, interdependent world of the twenty-first century.

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has already started to talk with governments, local government partners, and a broad spectrum of civil-society organizations to prepare a new framework in time for the next World Conference on Disaster Reduction in 2015, which, not surprisingly, will again be hosted by Japan. The outcome will certainly reflect what was learned from last year’s earthquake and tsunami, and seek to encourage deeper political and economic commitment to disaster-risk reduction and resilience worldwide.