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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.