For millennia, mankind has considered the devastating consequences of natural hazards as “acts of God” – a show of forces at play far beyond the possibility of intervention for humans. Dispelling this resilient myth is the core tenet of modern Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). Disasters, theory says and massive evidence confirms, are not inevitable. Whilst the forces of nature are indeed largely beyond human control, a disaster happens when such forces – an earthquake, a cyclone, or massive flash flooding, for example – meet vulnerable population. The less the population is vulnerable, the less the probability it will suffer negative consequences from the encounter with a hazard.
DRR is therefore primarily about changing attitudes – putting humans back into control of what may happen to them. Communities are encouraged to learn about the prevailing hazards they may be exposed to. Early warning systems are put in place to inform the population of impending dangers.
Investments are made in reducing the underlying factors of risk, such as, for example, building or retrofitting houses so that they are resilient to hazards or reversing deforestation so to reduce the risk of flooding or landslides. And people are taught of to prepare to respond to disasters. The Hyogo Framework for Action, adopted in 2005 by 186 governments as the global agenda for DRR, prescribes that such widespread interventions should be integrated into countries’ development plans, so that the reduction of disaster risks becomes a pillar of sustainable development.
A large and mounting quantity of evidence shows that investing in DRR works. The publication Living with Risk, produced yearly by the Secretariat of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, contains a broad selection of good practices showing how building resilience to natural hazards is changing for the better the lives of communities and entire countries around the world. And, if there was to be one model country to show the extraordinary extent to which disasters can be prevented and mitigated, that would certainly be Japan.
The Japanese National Development Plan strongly incorporates aspects related to safety, mitigation and risk reduction countermeasures as one of the five fundamental objectives of the country. The national vision of “making Japan a safe and comfortable place to live” is prioritized through a well understood criteria of minimizing the damage caused by earthquakes and other natural hazards. The Government of Japan has made important investments to understand how major hazards can impact the nation. Risk and vulnerability assessment has been carried out throughout the nation with the participation of the public and private sector, scientific organizations, research institutes and universities. Instrumentation to monitor different natural hazards and early warning systems for storms, heavy rain and snow, landslides, tsunamis, and others have been installed throughout the country. The management of knowledge to keep the general public informed and alert is considered to be extremely important to successfully implement concrete reduction and mitigation actions. A wide spectrum of education and capacity building programs are available not only for professionals in different fields, but also for students starting on their early years. A massive 23 billions USD per year (as much as 5% of the entire state budget) is invested in DRR, a level of expenditure most other countries can only dream of.
And, contrary to what one may think by considering the devastation caused by the recent earthquake, results speak for themselves. Already in 1995, the Kobe earthquake had the potential to cause hundreds of thousands of victims. Instead, the death toll was only just about 4,600 in a town of 1.5 million inhabitants. Although one single victim of a natural disaster is always one too many, it was clear that a human tragedy of horrific proportions had been averted by a decisive implementation of the Disaster Risk Reduction agenda.
The preliminary, still fragmentary information emerging from Japan in the early days following an earthquake and tsunami of unprecedented devastating force seem to confirm this trend. Despite a seismic event of staggering intensity and the high density of urbanized population living in the most affected areas, a relatively very small number of people seem to have died because of collapsing buildings – a testimony of the soundness of the country’s research, policy and implementation of seismic-resistant construction.
Most of the victims appear to have perished as a consequence of the massive tsunami waves that have practically annihilated large parts of the country’s north-west coast. But still, although it is very early to make final considerations, in light of the experience of the 2004 southAsia tsunami, it is reasonable to think that the death toll might have been one or two orders of magnitude bigger would effective tsunami early warning systems have not been in place, and had the population not been extensively trained on what to do upon receiving such warnings.
Still, the expert watching in astonishment the video footage showing entire towns being swept away by the force of the water and giving a quick, anguished thought to the scale of the human and material losses, is harrowed by the old concept of acts of God. It is difficult to think of a human technology, no matter how advanced, and of a level of implementation of the Disaster Risk Reduction agenda that would make communities and infrastructure so resilient to tsunamis of such proportions as they have shown to be to even the most powerful earthquakes.