Features | Environment | Oceania

Asia-Pacific’s Annus Horribilis

Massive flooding, a cyclone, catastrophic earthquakes and a nuclear crisis—there are plenty of lessons for Asia-Pacific leaders to learn.

Anthony Fensom

 ‘Losing our home was devastating – it’s hard to imagine everything you own fitting into a single suitcase.’

The comment was by Brisbane flood victim Benitta Harding, but could just as easily apply to a host of disasters that have hit the Asia-Pacific region already in 2011.

In a year that started with floods and cyclones in eastern Australia, before a major earthquake in New Zealand, and then Japan’s devastating temblor, tsunami, and now nuclear disaster, the region has barely had a chance to draw breath before the onset of the next crisis. But if regional governments are to try and mitigate the sometimes catastrophic effects of natural disasters, there are plenty of lessons that can be learned from what has happened so far this year.

In Queensland, the December-January floods are estimated to have killed 35 people across the state, mainly from flash flooding in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley in the south-east. Brisbane suffered an estimated A$440 million worth of damage, with 20,000 houses inundated and many city businesses shut down for over a week in mid-January. The floods caused over three-quarters of Queensland to be declared a disaster zone, but also caused significant damage in the southern states of New South Wales and Victoria.

Just a few weeks later, as the country was still reeling from the worst flooding in half a century, Cyclone Yasi—a category 5 cyclone—made landfall in north Queensland. Australia’s second-costliest cyclone on record caused A$3.5 billion in damage, destroying large swathes of the region’s banana and sugar cane crops, and contributing to an estimated total damages bill from recent disasters of about A$9 billion.

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For Brisbane resident and artist Harding though, the January floods almost completely submerged her house, destroying 20 years’ worth of artworks along with nearly all her belongings and those of her family’s. Nearly three months afterwards, she was still seeking assistance from charities after missing out on income-tested government aid.

‘Unless you’ve been through it, it’s really hard to comprehend,’ says Harding. ‘People come to our place and can’t comprehend that we don’t have running hot water, everything we own fits into the garage where we’re living, and a lot of the stuff there has been given to us.’

New Zealand was among the many countries that were quick to show their support, but a few weeks later the country would be left reeling from its own natural crisis.

On February 22, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck just 10 kilometres south-east of the centre of New Zealand’s second-largest city of Christchurch, killing 182 people, injuring 2,000, and leaving an estimated insurance bill of US$12 billion. The collapse of the six-story Canterbury TV building not only destroyed a TV station, but also killed a number of overseas students at an English language school, from Japan, China, and other countries.

Japan was among the many nations that dispatched assistance to the quake-stricken city, sending 66 search and rescue workers to Christchurch. The government would not have imagined that less than a month later it would need all available assistance for its own darkest hour.

Striking at 2.46 pm local time on Friday, March 11, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Tohoku region in the northeast of Japan, producing tsunami waves of up to 38 metres high and travelling up to 10 kilometres inland. The death toll has continued to rise, with more than 12,100 killed and 15,500 still missing as of April 4, while tens of thousands have been left homeless.

The most powerful known earthquake to have hit quake-prone Japan is also estimated to be the most expensive in world history, causing US$300 billion worth of damage. Added to all this was the release of radiation from Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO’s) stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, with residents within a 20-kilometre radius told to evacuate. Workers at the plant are still battling to contain the crisis.

The Japan quake struck a day after a 5.8 magnitude temblor in Yunnan, China, which killed 26 people and injured 313. And as the aftershocks continued in Japan, Burma was hit by its own 6.8 magnitude quake on March 24, in a reminder that the earth’s tectonic plates had yet to settle.

‘Plan for Armageddon’

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‘It’s best to plan for Armageddon,’ says crisis management expert Peter Rekers—a statement few would argue with him after the scale of destruction seen this year.

An academic, Australian Navy reservist and head of consultancy Crisis Ready, Rekers served in the international coalition’s reconstruction team in Baghdad in 2003 and has seen the impacts of man-made and natural disasters first-hand.

‘One of the lessons we’ve seen in the past few months is that everyone can be affected by natural disaster. I live high on a hill in Brisbane so I’m unaffected by floods. But if a cyclone hits, I’ll lose my roof and a fire would destroy my house in just seven minutes,’ he says.

Rekers says a number of jurisdictions have tended to plan for moderate impact events, rather than the worst-case scenario where a number of disasters strike simultaneously.

‘Let’s say we’re a state or country and we have a plan to manage a Category 2 cyclone hitting a low populated area. What happens if we get a Category 5 just after floods regionally, as well as in our capital city—is our plan robust enough to handle all of that?

‘Some might argue that’s never going to happen, whereas of course it’s happened this year in Queensland. Too many jurisdictions just think about the most likely event, rather than the accumulation of different crises happening potentially simultaneously. If they plan for the worse then if something less damaging occurs, it’s much easier to respond,’ he argues.

Rekers says organizations needed to be ‘open to learning and listening’ in their planning for disasters—a lesson many authorities are quickly learning. ‘Organisations that are closed and which stifle innovation are going to be more susceptible to disaster,’ he says. ‘A country or company that wants to listen will be in a much better position in their preparation.’

‘Information is key in a crisis, and if you can build a network of people who know each other’s information needs, when the disaster strikes you’ll have a much better change of managing it…Everyone wants to put on their superman shorts and be heroes during the crisis, but we need to also focus on the recovery effort, as shown in Queensland after Cyclone Larry in 2006 and Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.’

Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT’s) Global Change Professor Peter Grace agrees that better information is crucial, adding that early warning systems need to be improved.

‘Unfortunately in some of these disasters, like the floods that went through the Lockyer Valley, there wasn’t much of a warning system in place for residents,’ he says. ‘In the United States, for example, there is wall-to-wall monitoring and they basically can tell you to the exact hour when something is going to happen, so it really does give people a better idea of what to expect.’

Social media revolution?

Communicating with affected residents is essential as disasters unfold, with the recent Brisbane and Japan crises likely to produce several lessons for planners.

While praising Queensland Premier Anna Bligh for her ‘human touch’ in keeping the public informed with regular press conferences, Brisbane flood victim Harding says the communication from the authorities was still sometimes difficult to decipher.

‘I received a text message on my mobile phone at 4.30 pm on Tuesday, January 11, saying the Brisbane River was likely to rise by up to 18 or 19 metres. But what did that mean? I didn’t even know the river was near our property,’ she says. ‘Other neighbours were told to evacuate that afternoon, but we were just told by police to move our possessions up high and not to be alarmed.’

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Harding says social media was an important source of information during the flood crisis, with her mobile phone keeping her informed via Twitter after her house lost power.

‘People were twittering what shops were open and what roads were blocked. It was a great source of information, although of course you have to treat it carefully unless it’s from an authority like the police,’ she says.

QUT Associate Prof. Axel Bruns praised the efforts of the Queensland Police Service (QPS) during the crisis, saying that its social media campaign could serve as a role model for other government authorities. An expert on social media, Bruns says the two-way communication offered by networks such as Twitter and Facebook proved extremely valuable in sharing information.

‘The benefit of accessing Twitter or Facebook is you can tap into a wider community of people. With an SMS message via mobile phone you’re only having a conversation between two people, but if you’re on Twitter you can ask questions and receive information from a whole bunch of people, so it’s a much better information resource than just making a phone call or sending a text message,’ he says.

However, the flipside of social media was the ease with which misinformation was spread.

‘During the Brisbane floods, people were sharing this urban myth that if we all opened our taps we could lower the level of the (city’s major water supply) Wivenhoe Dam. But if you do the maths, it would have taken 10,000 days of taps running on full before there was any significant impact,’ he says. ‘It’s important for the authorities to respond to these rumours quickly, and the police were good at sending out regular myth-buster tweets to disprove them.’

Bruns says it’s important for authorities to have their social media accounts set up in advance of a crisis, with the right, properly trained staff running them.

‘I think it was quite a quick learning curve by the QPS. When they started, they were just using Twitter to re-post their Facebook messages. But they gradually learned how to use hash tags and changed their tweeting habits quite significantly in a short period of time,’ he says.

Yet social media is not the only innovative means of communication in a crisis, according to Crisis Ready’s Rekers.

“People believe that thinking creatively about communicating in a crisis means using social media, but it’s not always the case,” he said.

Japanese officials also turned to social media as part of their relief efforts. According to a March 31 AP report, Twitter saw its Japan audience grow by a third during the crisis, with cities including Mitaka, Musashino, and Koganei in Tokyo opening accounts to keep residents informed of blackouts and other essential information.

Food Crisis?

The natural disasters in Australia and Japan have cut economic growth and increased food costs due to the damage done to agriculture and transport systems. So amid already rising international commodity prices, what are the prospects for a future food crisis prompted by natural disasters or sudden climate change?

According to QUT’s Grace, a Malthusian nightmare may not be out of the question unless policymakers can induce another ‘green revolution,’ potentially through genetic modification.

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‘The rate of population growth is outstripping everything else. There was a green revolution in the 1960s which had a huge impact on feeding people and saved millions, but intensive agriculture has been detrimental in many ways,’ Grace says. ‘What we’re looking at in a potential food crisis is the issue of getting quality, high-protein food delivered to a lot more people…The population is still growing, and if you superimpose climate change on that, with increased temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns, then that’s another variable which will have to be taken into account.’

And while this year’s natural disasters don’t appear to have been tied to climate change, Grace says there’s still potential for increased frequency of extreme weather events.

‘If climate change is real, we are going to get a rise in the sea level which would exacerbate flooding, or even worse for Australia, longer duration of droughts,’ he says, adding that the worst affected places will be low-lying Pacific island nations such as Vanuatu and Fiji, as well as parts of the more heavily populated Indonesia.

Prof. John Quiggin of the University of Queensland’s School of Economics says it is poor nations that are inevitably going to be hardest hit by rising food and energy prices.

‘For Australia and a number of rich countries in the region, we’ll grumble at higher prices, but we’re food exporters and won’t go hungry. It’s more an issue for poorer countries like Bangladesh which are threatened with natural disaster as well as being heavily populated,’ he says. ‘If there are sharp rises in food prices you could see unproductive responses like limits on food exports, which we saw a couple of years back…We have to get moving fast to avoid the risk of really rapid and uncontrolled climate change.’

Political fallout

Amid the destruction of recent disasters, there has also been an interesting political phenomenon—poll rating bounces for unpopular leaders.

In many ways, this is no surprise as citizens rally together in a crisis. But the turnaround has still been remarkable in the case of Queensland’s Premier Anna Bligh, who saw her satisfaction rating soar from 25 percent just before late December 2010 to a high of 60 percent in February. Then-Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman also benefitted, with 82 per cent supporting his performance during the floods, according to a February 20 Galaxy Poll.

In Japan, meanwhile, Prime Minister Naoto Kan had seen his poll rating plunge in the months preceding the March earthquake. However, his approval rating climbed 8.4 percentage points in the first poll taken since the catastrophe, with around 58 per cent of respondents to a March 26-27 Kyodo News poll backing his crisis leadership.

‘Kan was basically dead in the water before this, with people saying it was going to take a miracle to rescue his political career. We’ve had this unprecedented natural disaster and he’s suddenly demonstrated those leadership qualities he’s been keeping carefully hidden since taking office,’ Temple University Japan’s Prof. Jeff Kingston says. ‘Kan spoke for the entire nation when he dressed down TEPCO for not providing timely, accurate, and reliable information.’

‘If you think of this as Kan’s Katrina moment, he has responded so much more effectively and quickly than Bush did,’ Kingston adds.

Crisis communications expert David Wagner says that TEPCO faces an uphill battle if it is to have any chance of regaining credibility due to its lack of transparency and planning. But moving forward, the Tokyo-based Managing Director of Asia Media Strategy warns that a greater concern for the public is the ‘cosy relationship’ evident between the regulators and TEPCO.

‘TEPCO’s attempt to “protect assets” in the first days of the crisis, as widely reported, allowed valuable time to gain the upper hand to slip away,’ Wagner says. ‘This added even more to the perception that the company can’t be trusted. Prime Minister Kan’s poll numbers are slightly up as a result of the crisis—this is not the case for TEPCO.’

Wagner says the decision-making and implementation of decisions in Japan’s crisis had been far too slow, with Hurricane Katrina in the United States by contrast being ‘less about slow decision-making and more about slow implementation.’

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‘In both cases, public distrust was evident…and it seems leaders bought umbrellas after it started to rain,’ he says. ‘While no firm or government can possibly plan for every potentiality, we must all think like an airline ready for a crash.’

Kingston says the Japanese government will now have to address its relationship with the nuclear power industry and its monitoring capacity, given the industry’s long history of cover-ups, as seen in the recent crisis and the 2002 Kashiwazaki-Kariwa data falsification scandal.

‘Japan isn’t suddenly going to decommission a lot of its generating capacity—nuclear energy provides 29 percent of the country’s electricity. ‘But there will be public pressure to invest more in renewable energy,’ he says.’

Disaster coordination

It’s clear that regional coordination of disaster management is a work in progress. While the implementation of an early warning system for tsunami has improved disaster readiness, and regional bodies including APEC and ASEAN Plus Three have addressed the issue, such crises were still best handled by individual governments.

‘On paper they talk about it, but it’s difficult enough for one country to deal with its own disaster rather than try to coordinate it,’ Kingston says. ‘In terms of effective, coordinated disaster management I’d say there’s still ways to go.’

Rekers says the United Nations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and rapid planning by US military and other forces all have a role to play, along with the exchange of specialist teams, as seen in the recent disasters. The problem, as always, is acting on good intentions.

“People don’t want to think about it until it’s too late,’ Rekers says. ‘I’m working with a Brisbane firm which was flooded, and it cost them A$1 million for their branch to be under water for 10 days. They had a disaster plan, but nobody had looked at it for years and it was completely useless as it was only based on an IT failure.’

And the likely foreign policy impacts of recent disaster assistance? These are far from clear, but are anyway likely only to have a fleeting effect.

‘The assistance Japan has received (from China and South Korea) is appreciated, but I don’t think it’s going to resolve their fundamental differences and inclination to clash,’ Kingston says, although he added that the significant role the US military had played in the humanitarian response in Japan could benefit the Japan-US alliance. ‘So far it’s played out reasonably well for Kan, but this is only a breathing space and there will be divisions over the recovery and over planned tax increases to cover the costs, so we can’t assume politics as usual will be suspended for the long term.’

Devin Stewart, Senior Program Director of US non-profit organization Japan Society, says that while the crisis in Japan had generated ‘enormous goodwill’ towards the country from its neighbours, it could also fade with time.

‘The risk for Japan, like for the United States after 9/11, is that the goodwill dissolves as a result of high expectations being dashed,’ he says. ‘I think it will be a matter of whether feelings of high expectations and indebtedness can be kept in check while countries leverage the occasion of goodwill between them.’