Japan has a roller coaster ride on climate change

KARACHIMA YUKARI is in front of a color-coded map. She points to houses that were inundated by flooding in Saga prefecture in August, for the second time in two years. Ms Karashima, who works at the Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center, a non-profit organization, spends a lot of time rushing to crisis scenes, staying long after the TV cameras have gone, cleaning mildew from the walls damp and train residents to prepare for the next disaster.

There is something to occupy him. Japan is a “big store for natural hazards,” says Nishiguchi Hiro of Japan Bosai Platform, a group of companies that develop disaster-related technologies. Few countries have been so shaped by hazards and disasters. Besides earthquakes and tsunamis, there are typhoons, floods, landslides and volcanic eruptions. Japan has had to learn to live with risks, which makes it a laboratory for resilient societies. “The concept of resilience is key to what others can learn from Japan,” says Rajib Shaw, disaster expert at Keio University in Fujisawa.

As the threat of natural hazards grows, from fires caused by climate change to zoonotic pandemics, the world must live with more risk. The countries that do the best will be the most resilient. In “The Resilient Society”, Markus Brunnermeier, economist at Princeton University, asserts that “resilience can serve as a guide for the North Star to design a post-covid-19 society”.

Japan’s biggest lesson is the value of preparation. As Ms. Karashima says, “It’s too late if you start taking action after the disaster. That it seems trite in much of the world makes its absence all the more striking. Of the $ 137 billion provided in global disaster-related development assistance from 2005 to 2017, 96% was spent on emergency response and reconstruction, less than 4% on disaster preparedness. Donors prefer large-scale rescue work; the media cover disasters when they happen, not when they don’t. Many governments see prevention as a cost, not an investment. But natural hazards are not always disasters. “The danger becomes a disaster when the capacity to adapt is too weak,” explains Takeya Kimio, adviser to the Japanese overseas development agency. In 2015, he promoted the “Build Back Better” concept in the UN Sendai Framework, a global compact on disaster risk management.

It is a lesson learned through bitter experience. The Ise Bay Typhoon, which killed 5,000 people in 1959, triggered the first disaster management reforms. Another wave came after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which left 6,500 people dead and more than 300,000 homeless. The government now has pre-arranged contracts for repairing infrastructure, allowing post-disaster reconstruction to begin quickly without going through tedious procurement procedures, says Sameh Wahba of the World Bank’s Disaster Management Program. Local governments store essential goods in schools and community centers. Parks have benches that can be used as stoves and manholes that become makeshift toilets. Across Japan, every day at nightfall, folk tunes blast from neighborhood speakers, a charming part of local life, but also a way to test warning systems.

Building safer

The government is focusing on engineering-based solutions. Such an investment, along with improvements to building codes, has reduced risk. The fact that most structures built to new standards withstood the 9.0 magnitude earthquake in eastern Japan in 2011 that triggered a large tsunami and nuclear meltdown is testament to this. “If not for Fukushima, it is the greatest avoided disaster in history,” said Francis Ghesquiere of the World Bank.

But we cannot ignore Fukushima. This nuclear fusion shows another lesson: this overreliance on technology can create a false sense of security. Officials who believed the dikes would protect them ignored warnings from scientists about the plant’s location near a major fault line. Regulators who were too comfortable with the nuclear industry neglected to place the plant’s back-up generators in a basement. When the earthquake cut off major power lines, the tsunami overcame dikes and flooded generators, cutting off power to water pumps, causing reactors to overheat. Even the best hardware can fail.

The software is as essential as the hardware. When Shimizu Mika, a resilience expert at Kyoto University, was a child in Kobe in 1995, citizens were unprepared. “We used to have an exercise in schools, duck and blanket, and then nothing else,” she recalls. Now people realize that disaster risk is everyone’s business. A cabinet survey before the pandemic found that a majority had discussed household disaster plans in the previous year or two. The private sector and civil society, which flourished after Kobe, have invested in disaster preparedness. The key is to make this participatory and citizen-led; the goal is not simply to impart knowledge about evacuation routes, but to strengthen bonds within a community.

Research suggests that such efforts are more than wellness parties. When disaster strikes, social capital makes a big difference in survival and recovery rates, says Daniel Aldrich, director of the resilience studies program at Northeastern University. It designates the districts of Mano and Mikura in Kobe. The two had similar demographic and physical characteristics, but Mano had more social capital, thanks to a history of activism and community events. When the earthquake struck, the people of Mano organized themselves to fight the fires; those of Mikura did not. More than 15 years later, NGO Density is a better indicator of population recovery rates than income or government spending, argues Aldrich.

The Reiwa era will test these personal connections. One of the reasons is climate change. In Yonaguni, typhoons have become “very unpredictable,” said Itokazu. Paradoxically, Japan’s history of disasters has made it a laggard when it comes to climate change. With so many old dangers, the new ones have not aroused as much urgency as elsewhere, deplores Koizumi Shinjiro, former Minister of the Environment. The Fukushima collapse kept environmentalists focused on anti-nuclear campaigns, rather than climate change.

The nuclear disaster has also crippled energy policy. Although the government is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, it has yet to provide a credible plan to achieve it. Its provisional cards depend on restarting a large number of shelved nuclear power plants, an unlikely prospect given popular resistance. Leaders have avoided frank discussions with the public about compromise. Meanwhile, Japan will continue to consume a lot of fossil fuels, including coal.

Another difficulty is the “changing landscape of vulnerability”, explains Mizutori Mami, head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. The elderly, whose numbers are increasing in Japan, are most at risk. This was a lesson from the floods of two years ago, says Ms. Karashima; this year, his team had lists of those who couldn’t reach the evacuation shelters and needed help. The pandemic has led even more people to stay at home. Adapting to a future where several hazards can occur at the same time will require a flexibility that the Japanese system lacks.

Earthquakes remain the biggest threat, especially in and around Tokyo. The government estimates that over the next 30 years, there is a 70-80% chance of a severe earthquake and tsunami occurring in the Nankai Trench, an area south of Japan’s main island. It can strike where people and the economy are concentrated, crippling industry and disrupting global supply chains. The death toll could reach 323,000 (the 2011 earthquake and tsunami killed some 20,000); study estimates it could drop by 11.1% GDP (a loss 4.5 times greater than in 2011). “It would call into question the survival of Japan as a state,” said Fukuwa Nobuo, director of the Center for Disaster Mitigation Research at Nagoya University. It would also devastate one of the largest cities in the world. â– 

This article appeared in the Special Feature section of the print edition under the title “Un dossier en damier”

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