By Katie Harris and Frauke Urban
Disasters are nothing new, but the more they occur the better prepared we should be. The more we learn about the way natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and their exposure to those hazards inter-relate, the more we learn about how to become ‘disaster resilient’.
Yet being ‘resilient’ is not just about being able to thrive in spite of a one-off crisis, but to be able to withstand and progress in spite of what can be numerous, interlinked events – as the recent anniversary of the March 2011 Japan earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in Fukushima reminds us.
INCREASINGLY COMPLEX DISASTERS
Japan was and remains comparatively resilient. Yet the death toll of the events one year ago is recorded to have surpassed 18,000, and damages reached in excess of £145 billion.
This provides a prime example of the need to take a resilient approach to disaster risk, involving the consideration of multiple (simultaneous) natural hazards and man-made disasters and greater consideration of their intersection with broader societal risks.
Disaster resilience requires consideration of both the initial shock, and chances of the shock acting as a catalyst for other ‘spin-off’ impacts such as a tsunami or damage to a nuclear plant. One of the major challenges exposed by the Japan experience is the safety of nuclear power when it lies in the path of natural hazards.
In hindsight, it may seem obvious that Japan would require planning which includes the likelihood of earthquakes, tsunami and nuclear disaster occurring simultaneously. However a report on climate change, disasters and electricity generation released a few months after Fukushima argued that planning authorities and energy companies largely failed to employ such a holistic perspective of risk, and have a long way to go in realising what could be framed as a more resilient disaster risk system.
More action is needed to ensure energy supply becomes ‘climate smart'; for example by strengthening the linkages between energy ministries, climate ministries and disaster ministries in order to improve energy policy and planning.
In addition, more analysis of human behaviour is key. As the recent IPCC Special Report on Extreme Events says, “exposure and vulnerability are major drivers of changes in disaster risk”; meaning we need to realise that where people live, how they live and their ability to choose their livelihoods are critical factors in understanding disaster risk.
Better insight into why people live in certain areas, choose to accept certain risks and behave in certain ways during disasters also requires a closer look at the psychological, social and cultural aspects of disaster risk.
LESSONS FROM THE FUKUSHIMA EXPERIENCE
One year after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan, there has been some rethinking about nuclear power and its safety with respect to disasters. However this has not resulted in significant changes to policy and practice on a global level.
The nuclear accident in Fukushima prompted a revision of nuclear safety in countries in the European Union, the United States, Japan, China and India. Some countries conducted so-called stress tests to test the resilience of nuclear plants to natural hazards such as earthquakes and floods.
Germany issued a new energy policy for a complete nuclear phase out by 2021. This was evoked by the evidence that even the advanced nuclear technology of Japan is not safe and presents a considerable hazard for health and safety.
However, at a global level, no decline in nuclear power can be recorded. Despite the nuclear accident in Fukushima, more than 60 new nuclear reactors are reported to be currently under construction, of which almost half are in China.
An additional 495 new nuclear reactors are currently planned or proposed according to the World Nuclear Association, which would mean more than a doubling of the global nuclear capacity compared to today.
This massive potential increase in nuclear power is likely to also increase the risk of another future nuclear accident - that is, unless the communication and cooperation between energy, climate and disaster ministries are strengthened.
WHAT NEXT FOR JAPAN?
One year after the devastating Japanese triple disaster the need for a holistic approach to disaster risk reduction remains critical. For many, resilience provides the space to pursue this ideal. Indeed, this was the message voiced by Margareta Wahlstrom, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction and Head of UNISDR, in reflecting on Japan’s resilience one year on.
Governments, planning authorities and companies need to fully take into account the risks posed by natural hazards, including climate-related disasters, for energy generation and energy supply, as well as for many other sectors. There needs to be more emphasis on disaster preparedness, prevention and recovery strategies - not only in Japan, but at the global level.
Katie Harris is a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, and Dr Frauke Urban is a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies’ Centre for Development, Environment and Policy.