Unheard voices in the Tohoku disaster: Toward international policy community

Analytic Services Inc.

By Mika Shimizu

Numerous visits to the impacted areas of the 2011 Tohoku disaster in Japan revealed large gaps between local field realities and policy orientations. A trip to Tohoku this summer confirmed the continuing commitment of local people and staff to recovery efforts despite policies that are not always informed by the reality of what is happening on the ground. In short, the voices in the Tohoku disaster go largely unheard.

One of the greatest lessons learned from reviewing the overall disaster response in Japan one year after the Tohoku disaster was the need for greater integration of the local needs and perspectives into disaster response systems and activities. There are several excellent systems and activities, but some systems and activities are insufficiently linked to local realities, and this has led to miscommunication, inaction, and confusion during the response and reconstruction phases. A notable and tragic example was the failure of Japan’s radiation forecasting system known as SPEEDI (System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information). The computer system was developed at a cost of twelve billion yen ($52.9 million USD) in the 1980s to forecast radiation, yet during the Tohoku disaster it directed many local people to evacuate directly into the direction of the radiation plume.

Failure to assign allocated funding where it is needed during the current recovery phase suggests that national systems are not adequately linked to local needs. Japan’s Reconstruction Agency reported that approximately 35 percent of the 7.5 trillion yen (approximately $72 billion USD) budgeted in fiscal year 2013 for rebuilding damaged areas in Tohoku has yet to be used,and a similar percentage of the budget went unused in fiscal year 2012. Meanwhile, as of June 2014, over 251,000 affected people continued to struggle with overlong stays in small, temporary housing; delayed residential planning and construction; and confusing financial issues, including double loans. As of March 2014, more than 3,000 deaths had been reported and attributed to the Tohoku disaster, with deaths of people more than 65 years old accounting for about 90 percent of fatalities.

The psychological burdens on the Tohoku population remain high and unrelenting. The threat of contamination creates undue stress, and decontamination work is particularly important and time-sensitive as it is required before populations in the Fukushima prefecture can return to their hometowns. Yet the decontamination process is not proceeding as quickly as it could, judging by the fact that 50 percent of the allocated budget remains.

Mismatches between local populations’ needs and current policies can also be seen in plans to construct seawalls to protect populations from future tsunamis. The government plans to construct hundreds of concrete seawalls 16 to 50 feet high, at a cost of 820 billion yen (approximately $8 billion USD), stretching 242 miles along the coast. In Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate prefectures, different local communities have expressed serious concerns about the plan and its impact on their daily lives and society, and they have proposed alternative methods.

People in Maehama District in Kesennuma City in Miyagi held a series of self-organized study workshops and decided to challenge the national concrete seawall plan. An alternative plan for a “forest seawall” was proposed by Akira Miyawaki, Emeritus Professor at Yokohama National University. The forest seawall plan calls for planting local vegetation, such as Tabunoki, which proved tough enough to resist tsunami waters during the Tohoku disaster. The locally-developed plan reuses debris (with toxic components removed) and mixes it with the soil in a way that allows deeper root penetration. A forest seawall has been shown to reduce the speed, energy, and water level of a tsunami, giving people additional time to evacuate and reducing the likelihood that people and property will be washed away by the receding waters.

The forest seawall proposal is under discussion at the national level in Japan. Iwanuma City in Miyagi has initiated the first serious forest seawall project, “The Hill of 1000 Years of Hope”—a ten-year plan to build several 10-meter-high hills within a 10 km north-south area along the coast to create a green belt. More than 4,500 people gathered for the project’s initial planting event at the site. The forest seawall concept, however, has not yet been adopted as national policy, in part because of differing legal regulations and jurisdictions. Meanwhile, construction of the concrete seawall is under way in Tohoku.

The international policy community, led by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, has been discussing the successor document to the Hyogo Framework for Action, the Post-2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which will be finalized at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, to be held in Sendai, Japan, in March 2015. For the past decade, the Hyogo Framework for Action has provided critical guidance to reduce disaster risk and strengthen cooperation among stakeholders at the local and global levels, and the Post-2015 Framework, like its predecessor, will play a critical role in framing the management of coming disaster risks. Unfortunately, current policy discussions for the Post-2015 Framework largely fail to incorporate the greatest Tohoku lesson that disaster management must integrate local perspectives into preparedness systems and activities.

The dynamic change of risk in modern society requires true resiliency born out of methods that are traditional as well as dynamic, adaptive, analytic, and inclusive of lessons gleaned from recent cascading disasters. Lessons drawn from the Tohoku disaster provide key insights that can help prepare for cascading disaster risks in modern society. Early warning, risk assessment, education, research, knowledge, and investment are core components of disaster management, but critical attention must also be given to the linkages between elements, resources, systems, and activities at the local and national levels. Without a clear understanding of the inherent linkages throughout the system the valuable resources and efforts by governments and civil society will not optimized.

Prior to the Tohoku tragedy, disaster management policies in Japan prioritized seismic reinforcement of houses, hospitals, public infrastructure, and seawalls against earthquake and tsunamis. In Tohoku, the greatest loss of life resulted from the tsunami, not from the earthquake, so it is safe to say that earthquake preparedness worked well overall. However, different aspects of both the response and recovery phases demonstrate the importance of prioritizing the linkages among systems, elements, resources and activities so policies reflect the needs and preferences of those they impact. We are living in a world of more dynamic disaster risk, and the unheard voices in Tohoku provide critical messages for the future.

Mika Shimizu is Assistant Professor at the Disaster Prevention Research Institute at Kyoto University. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

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