Japanese Lessons on Reducing Disaster Risk

MANILA - The March 11 earthquake-tsunami is the worst natural disaster to hit Japan in modern times. Nobody who has watched the events of recent days can fail to be moved by the unprecedented scope of the tragedy and its toll on human lives and property - a toll that continues to climb.

The images we have seen in the aftermath are tragic and touching, and it is heartening to see the people of Japan responding calmly, with discipline, dignity and resilience.

Japan's swift and effective response is a clear reflection of the focused preparations the country has made in disaster preparedness, with even more determination since the Kobe earthquake in 1995. While the world stands ready to help, the vast majority of the burden for recovery will fall on Japan itself.

Japan has invested heavily in disaster risk reduction, strengthening the seismic performance of buildings and of national and local response capacities and warning systems. While the loss of life and damage have been devastating, they would have been far worse without the risk management investments made over the last several decades. In this regard, Japan can serve as an example for others in disaster-prone Asia-Pacific, and indeed around the world.

It is clear that disaster risk reduction efforts in policymaking, risk-sensitive land-use planning, construction and community preparedness pay dividends by saving lives and reducing losses. While the damage to property is extensive, much of the economic cost of this damage and loss will be covered by insurance and other types of disaster risk financing.

Japan has also clearly shown the value of early warning systems and evacuation plans and drills for reducing loss of life and injury. The government has opened shelters across many parts of northeastern Japan, initially sheltering more than 500,000 people. An estimated 200,000 people have also been evacuated or re-evacuated from the areas around the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini nuclear plants.

In addition, Japan has mobilized more than 70,000 Self-Defense Force personnel to the disaster area and is to send an additional 30,000. It also quickly mobilized more than 10,000 police officers and firefighters around the country to assist in the recovery.

Addressing the compound effects of disasters is a significant challenge, even in countries that are at the top of the chart in preparedness like Japan. As was so unfortunately demonstrated March 11, secondary events can also have catastrophic consequences.

Japan's disaster risk reduction efforts were quite successful in limiting damage and loss of life from the earthquake. Prompt evacuation alerts undoubtedly saved many, but the unexpected scale of the tsunami, triggered by an unprecedented magnitude-9.0 earthquake, unleashed the fury of nature over a vast area of the country. Dealing with these issues requires systems that are flexible and ready to be applied in a wide variety of potential scenarios. This is a challenge Japan - along with the rest of the world - will need to address.

Japan has been a world leader in disaster risk management systems. It has also been a leader in helping other countries address these critical needs. In collaboration with multilateral development banks and international organizations such as the Asian Development Bank, Japan has supported a range of innovative and critically needed projects on risk analysis, risk-sensitive land-use planning and engineering, pre-disaster recovery planning, community disaster preparedness and response coordination.

We hope the tragedy in Japan will encourage risk-prone countries around the world to build and vigilantly maintain resilience to catastrophe. Poorer countries, including those in developing Asia and the Pacific region, have even more to gain from Japan's experience because lack of preparedness can significantly set back hard-earned development gains.

Japan's preparedness and strong response set an example for the rest of the world, and the international community has also responded swiftly. However, despite dedicated and resolute efforts, there are many challenges ahead.

The ADB stands ready to support the people and government of Japan in their recovery efforts. With its inherent fortitude and the support of the international community, I am confident that Japan will succeed, as it has before, in rebuilding with even greater determination.