Understanding disaster risk in all its complexity has never been more important, as we see problems cascade
Ten years on from the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami is a good moment to reflect: on whom and what we lost, what has changed for so many thousands of people affected, and, importantly, what needs still to change so that this dreadful, tragic event is not repeated.
In many large-scale disasters involving widespread disruption of society, including loss of life, the post-mortem often reveals there was a clear intention to close the stable door before the horse had a chance to bolt.
In other words, the road to disaster hell is often paved with good intentions, good intentions that remain just that until after disaster strikes.
This pattern of behavior can be discerned most clearly in the failure to act on the many warnings that it was only a matter of time before the world would face a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19. We failed to prepare, and therefore we failed to prevent.
Similarly, there was no good reason to believe that the Indian Ocean was less deserving of a tsunami early warning system than the Pacific Ocean which had one since 1949, until the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 made it unthinkable not to invest in such a fundamental tool for saving lives.
The events of March 11 2011, along the Tohoku coast, tell a story of the great heroism and sacrifice of many first responders. Although more than18,400 people are either dead or missing as a result, the loss of life would have been much greater but for Japan’s robust seismic codes.
These seismic codes meant fewer people died because of collapsed buildings; bullet trains stopped within seconds of the tremors; and, most impressively, eleven reactors at four operating nuclear power plants shut down immediately.
Nonetheless, it is clear from the death toll that the historical record was discounted in many places where tsunami sea walls were destroyed, and communities assumed that they were safe and did not evacuate. Older persons died in disproportionate numbers as contingency measures to ensure their safety proved inadequate.
The Fukushima Daiichi Accident Report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency noted that the Japanese authorities carried out trial calculations between 2007 and 2009 postulating that tsunami water flood levels as a result of an 8.3 magnitude earthquake could lead to tsunami runup of around 15 metres at the nuclear power plant which would inundate the main buildings.
This is indeed what happened in 2011. And the people of Fukushima continue to live with the consequences.
Systemic risk is what happens when what could go wrong does go wrong, and results in a cascading series of problems such as power outages, water shortages, health systems failure, disruption to waste management and much else besides. Something similar recently played out in the winter storm that hit Texas. A state official described it on television as “a chain reaction of worst-case scenarios.”
Understanding disaster risk in all its complexity has never been more important.
It was not for nothing that the world came together in conference six years ago in Sendai, the largest city in the 3/11 disaster zone. Participants flew into an airport rebuilt after it was destroyed by the 2011 tsunami waves and took a train into the city centre on elevated tracks that will survive the next tsunami.
Those gathered adopted a global agreement called the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which captures much of the learning from the disaster ten years ago and many others, including epidemics of SARS, Ebola, H1N1 and MERS.
The Sendai Framework recognises that international cooperation is essential if we are to support developing countries to install effective early warning systems and implement both climate adaptation plans and national strategies for disaster risk reduction. Their coping capacity depends on that cooperation both in terms of technical and financial support.
In addition, there is an even more important consideration.
The science and knowledge of disaster risk can only get us so far. It is up to politicians to have the vision and foresight to recognise the cost benefits of investing in prevention.
At $210 billion, the 2011 disaster in Japan was the most expensive on record, until the pandemic came along, which is now costing trillions. The cumulative cost of extreme weather amplified by global warming also stretches to trillions of dollars.
Today there are several planetary emergencies which need our attention right now and we must apply the lessons learned from past events such as the one we commemorate on March 11.
Procrastination costs lives.