x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Japan's risk is that it can never be too prepared

Japan's new tragedy has brought new milestones - both good and bad - to the country's history

After the Kobe earthquake in 1995 collapsed long stretches of motorway and claimed over 6,400 lives, Japan's citizens and officials realised it was time for a new plan.

Heavy investment poured into disaster risk reduction. Today, early warning systems link up to satellite networks to provide news to residents via loudspeakers and radio; schools teach disaster reduction courses; there is even a "Disaster Reduction Volunteer Day" in January to encourage the high level of civic engagement witnessed in the aftermath of the Kobe crisis.

Officials hoped that preparing for damage in advance - rather than just responding to it - could save lives, help the economy recover more quickly, and protect infrastructure. The result is one of the most sophisticated disaster prevention systems of all the nations situated around the Pacific Rim of Fire.

And yet the country was still overwhelmed by the double devastation that swept through Sendai on Friday. The catastrophic tsunami that swallowed acres of coastal land was triggered by an 8.9-magnitude quake, a temblor stronger than the nation had ever felt; not even the quake of 1923, which levelled Tokyo and killed over 100,000, compares.

This tragic milestone brings with it new worries. The country's Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant, just one of over 50 scattered throughout the islands, has suffered an unlikely explosion whose ultimate consequences remain unknown. While the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission has long accounted for seismic activity as part of nuclear plant design, a disaster of this magnitude has brought officials into uncharted territory, calling into question the practical solutions that can be applied during nuclear emergencies.

Evacuations, too, remain a difficulty that will increase in the coming days as villages remain flooded. Over 200,000 people have already been shuttled out of harm's way, but Japan may have to rely on more than just limited foreign assistance if it is to see all of its citizens to safety.

As Edgardo Calderón, a former official with the Peruvian Red Cross said in a forum on the Kobe earthquake in 2005: "Decades of development can be destroyed by a disaster in a matter of hours."

Japan has done its best to guard against this danger by preparing for the worst; it is certainly better prepared today than a decade ago. But this new catastrophe is a reminder that even the best laid plans are not infallible. Sendai will no doubt offer hard-learned lessons in the days ahead.