LONDON (AlertNet) - As millions of people in Japan's tsunami-battered northeast spend a fourth night without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures, tens of thousands of relief workers are struggling to reach them.
Many of those rushing to deliver aid are members of Japan’s Self Defence Forces, Japanese Red Cross volunteers or local search-and-rescue teams. Some international aid workers have travelled to Japan to offer specialist help but the bulk of the response is a home-grown effort.
How is the humanitarian relief effort being coordinated after a disaster the prime minister has called Japan’s worst crisis since World War Two?
Who’s in charge?
As in any emergency, the government is the sole authority responsible for looking after its population. It is in charge of coordinating and organising rescue operations with the support of its army, civil protection units and sometimes international actors.
Japan has asked for limited support from other countries in the form of a few search-and-rescue teams, but mostly the world’s third-largest economy has the wherewithal to cope with the crisis on its own.
What’s the role of the army?
In most countries hit by major natural disasters, the military plays a significant role in providing relief. Often the army is the only body with the logistical means - planes, helicopters, all-terrain vehicles and so on - to reach and rescue survivors. It can deploy large numbers of forces within hours and shift vast quantities of relief supplies.
In Japan, the government has mobilised 100,000 Self Defence Force troops to deliver food, water and fuel.
What about local communities?
After any disaster, members of the affected communities are the first to provide help. Long before search and rescue teams have arrived, friends, neighbours, relatives and local volunteers have pulled many people from the rubble, provided first aid and called for help.
In Japan, the population has been trained for decades on what to do in case of earthquake and tsunamis. Community-based disaster response groups known as “jishubo” are well equipped to rescue trapped survivors, guide people to evacuation centres and supply food and water.
What about the Red Cross?
The Japanese Red Cross has more than 15 million individual members and runs almost 100 hospitals and dozens of blood centres nationwide. Red Cross volunteers play a key role in keeping people alive by providing immediate first aid.
The Japanese Red Cross is a member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Society (IFRC) and can call on support from the federation. An IFRC team is on the ground in the disaster zone helping to assess needs.
When do international players step in?
When a country lacks the capacity to deal with an emergency, it can ask for help from the international community. That is what happened in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake, when scores of international groups ranging from big U.N. agencies and non-governmental organisations to tiny faith-based charities scrambled into Port-au-Prince.
Countries don't always ask for assistance even if they need help. After Cyclone Nargis tore through parts of Myanmar in 2008, for example, the ruling junta did not issue an appeal for international help despite scale of the crisis.
The government is the only authority that can request or accept international assistance.
Why hasn’t Japan requested help?
As one of the most developed countries, and no stranger to natural hazards, Japan has the capacity to deal with massive emergencies. It is probably the most advanced nation in the world when it comes to coping disaster risk reduction – everything from quake-proofing buildings to running sophisticated early warning systems.
Nevertheless, Japanese authorities have accepted international support in a few specific areas – particularly from search and rescue teams and nuclear specialists. Cooperation agreements are made on a case-by-case basis with individual countries and international organisations.
Which countries are supporting the relief effort?
Ninety-two countries have offered some form of assistance ranging from monetary and in-kind donations to medical, logistical and military support. While many nations have sent in specialist teams, the United States has offered part of its Pacific fleet of ships and plane carriers to organise rescue operations.
Why can’t the United Nations provide help?
The United Nation is an intergovernmental organisation made of 192 states, and its members have so far given priority to direct bilateral cooperation with Japan over multilateral cooperation via U.N. agencies.
U.N. agencies such as the World Food Programme and UNICEF can only operate in a country under the coordination of the government. So far the Japanese government has not requested support from U.N. agencies.
However, a U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team has arrived in Japan to support the government in its emergency response operations in what it describes as a “targeted” way. UNDAC teams usually deploy to help coordinate the influx of international players, but that seems unlikely to happen in Japan.
Why aren’t more international NGOs piling in?
Given Japan’s capacity for dealing with major catastrophes, there is little role for international NGOs to play other than in specific ways not yet covered by the authorities. Most international NGOs in Japan are focusing on getting to especially remote areas or providing specialist help to the elderly or young children.