4 Years Later, What Japan Can Teach the World About Disaster Preparedness


Japan hosted the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction from March 14 to 18. The Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction  is held by the United Nations about once every decade; more than 40,000 people were expected to take part, representing governments and NGOs from more than 170 countries.

Fittingly, the conference was held in Sendai, described by Japan Times as “a city that is synonymous with resilience to disasters for its remarkable recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.” That disaster struck four years ago on March 11, 2011, leaving more than 18,000 people dead or missing and triggering the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Tokyo used the opportunity to highlight the ways in which it has contributed to sharing expertise and knowledge with the rest of the world, especially developing countries, to pursue development goals and promote recovery from natural disasters. Japan’s “knowledge sharing” initiative is based on emphasizing the three principles: cost-effective prior investment, the idea of “building back better” (to create nations and regions more resilient than they were before the disaster), and cooperation between the central government, local governments, companies and other entities.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

New U.N. guidelines to be adopted at the conference will not set concrete numerical targets for disaster prevention efforts, but will call for greater investment in preparedness to promote sustainable development. The guidelines agreed to at Sendai will also set the tone for other key processes this year, including the agreement on development financing in July, the set of Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted in September, and a new agreement on climate change in December.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon declared in a special interview to the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Our drive for sustainability will start in Sendai.” He added:

Strategies to manage disasters are critical. The world has already shown great progress in saving lives by improving weather forecasting, setting up early warning systems and organizing evacuations. But the Sendai conference is expected to also deliver strategies for disaster risk management, which lies at the hart of strengthening the international response.

The distinction between disaster management and disaster risk management is significant, as Margareta Wahlstrom, special representative of the Secretary-General for disaster risk reduction and head of the UN office for disaster risk reduction, points out.

In his keynote address, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged $4 billion (480 billion yen) in assistance over four years to help other countries better prepare for disasters. Japan will also cooperate with other countries to nurture 40,000 people trained in disaster preparedness who can draw up appropriate policies and act as regional leaders. Abe encouraged countries to also put greater priority on policies for disaster preparedness through greater public-private cooperation and increased funding for projects such as reforming legal provisions, nurturing human resources, and investing more in disaster-resilient infrastructure.

Japan has taken steps to increase its own disaster preparedness since the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Japan has revised its basic disaster prevention law three times over the past four years – for example, authorities now have emergency powers to remove vehicles blocking access without the owners’ permission. The number of tsunami evacuation facilities has increased from 1,790 in 2010 to roughly 10,000 by the end of 2013, according to the Cabinet Office.

The central government also aims to increase the percentage of houses that are earthquake resistant from 79 percent in 2008 to 90 percent by the end of 2015, and recommends all businesses to keep enough emergency food and water for employees to last three days on-site. But these goals will be difficult to meet because of the significant investment required from private citizens and companies.

Another innovative proposal is to establish earthquake-sensitive electricity breakers in overcrowded urban areas. These breakers would automatically stop electricity when they detect a strong tremor, a safeguard that is intended to prevent the outbreak of devastating fires in urban areas following an earthquake. Land Minister Akihiro Ota also spoke at the Conference, and highlighted the need to build coastal levees and evacuation routes to prepare for the possibility of another large tsunami.

Just three days before the Sendai Conference, Emperor Akihito and Abe paid their respects at a government-sponsored memorial service held in Tokyo. At the service, Abe pledged all-out efforts by the government to work out comprehensive disaster prevention measures, such as those described above. “We would like to push ahead with creating a country resilient to disasters,” Abe said.

Despite the high praise offered by outsiders (much of it well deserved), Japan has still a long way to go to recover. There are still 80,372 people living in makeshift housing complexes in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima. The central government has allocated a total of $217 billion (26.30 trillion yen) for reconstruction work over the five-year period through March 2016. During this intensive period, the central government bore the entirety of the reconstruction costs; now they are looking to ask local governments to share any new costs. A new reconstruction support framework for the post-March 2016 period is expected this summer.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief