Learning from Megadisasters: A Decade of Lessons from the Great East Japan Earthquake

On March 11th, 2011 a Magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan, near the Tohoku region. The force of the earthquake sent a tsunami rushing towards the Tohoku coastline, a black wall of water which wiped away entire towns and villages. Sea walls were overrun. 200,000 lives were lost. The scale of destruction to housing, infrastructure, industry and agriculture was extreme in Fukushima, Iwate, and Miyagi prefectures. In addition to the hundreds of thousands who lost their homes, the earthquake and tsunami contributed to an accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, requiring additional mass evacuations. The impacts not only shook Japan’s society and economy as a whole, but also had ripple effects in global supply chains. In the 21st century, a disaster of this scale is a global phenomenon.
The severity and complexity of the cascading disasters was not anticipated. The events during and following the Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE) showed just how ruinous and complex a low-probability, high-impact disaster can be. However, although the impacts of the triple-disaster were devastating, Japan’s legacy of DRM likely reduced losses. Japan’s structural investments in warning systems and infrastructure were effective in many cases, and preparedness training helped many act and evacuate quickly. The large spatial impact of the disaster, and the region’s largely rural and elderly population, posed additional challenges for response and recovery.
Over recent years, the Japan-World Bank Program on Mainstreaming DRM in Developing Countries has furthered the work of the Learning from Megadisasters report, continuing to gather, analyze and share the knowledge and lessons learned from GEJE, together with past disaster experiences, to enhance the resilience of next generation development investments around the world. Ten years on from the GEJE, we take a moment to revisit the lessons gathered, and reflect on how they may continue to be relevant in the next decade, in a world faced with both seismic disasters and other emergent hazards such as pandemics and climate change.
Through synthesizing a decade of research on the GEJE and accumulation of the lessons from the past disaster experience, this story highlights three key strategies which recurred across many of the cases we studied. They are:
1) the importance of planning for disasters before they strike,
2) DRM cannot be addressed by either the public or private sector alone but enabled only when it is shared among many stakeholders,
3) institutionalize the culture of continuous enhancement of the resilience.
For example, business continuity plans, or BCPs, can help both public and private organizations minimize damages and disruptions. BCPs are documents prepared in advance which provide guidance on how to respond to a disruption and resume the delivery of products and services. Additionally, the creation of pre-arranged agreements among independent public and/or private organizations can help share essential responsibilities and information both before and after a disaster. This might include agreements with private firms to repair public infrastructures, among private firms to share the costs of mitigation infrastructure, or among municipalities to share rapid response teams and other resources. These three approaches recur throughout the more specific lessons and strategies identified in the following section, which is organized along the three areas of disaster risk management: resilient infrastructure; risk identification, reduction and preparedness; and disaster risk finance and insurance.
Lessons from the Megadisaster Resilient Infrastructure
The GEJE had severe impacts on critical ‘lifelines’—infrastructures and facilities that provide essential services such as transportation, communication, sanitation, education, and medical care. Impacts of megadisasters include not only damages to assets (direct impacts), but also disruptions of key services, and the resulting social and economic effects (indirect impacts). For example, the GEJE caused a water supply disruption for up to 500,000 people in Sendai city, as well as completely submerging the city’s water treatment plant. Lack of access to water and sanitation had a ripple effect on public health and other emergency services, impacting response and recovery. Smart investment in infrastructure resilience can help minimize both direct and indirect impacts, reducing lifeline disruptions. The 2019 report Lifelines: The Resilient Infrastructure Opportunity found through a global study that every dollar invested in the resilience of lifelines had a $4 benefit in the long run.
In the case of water infrastructure, the World Bank report Resilient Water Supply and Sanitation Services: The Case of Japan documents how Sendai City learned from the disaster to improve the resilience of these infrastructures. Steps included retrofitting existing systems with seismic resilience upgrades, enhancing business continuity planning for sanitation systems, and creating a geographic information system (GIS)-based asset management system that allows for quick identification and repair of damaged pipes and other assets. During the GEJE, damages and disruptions to water delivery services were minimized through existing programs, including mutual aid agreements with other water supply utility operators. Through these agreements, the Sendai City Waterworks Bureau received support from more than 60 water utilities to provide emergency water supplies. Policies which promote structural resilience strategies were also essential to preserving water and sanitation services. After the 1995 Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake (GHAE), Japanese utilities invested in earthquake resistant piping in water supply and sanitation systems. The commonly used earthquake-resistant ductile iron pipe (ERDIP) has not shown any damage from major earthquakes including the 2011 GEJE and the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake. Changes were also made to internal policies after the GEJE based on the challenges faced, such as decentralizing emergency decision-making and providing training for local communities to set up emergency water supplies without utility workers with the goal of speeding up recovery efforts.
Redundancy is another structural strategy that contributed to resilience during and after GEJE. In Sendai City, redundancy and seismic reinforcement in water supply infrastructure allowed the utility to continue to operate pipelines that were not physically damaged in the earthquake The Lifelines report describes how in the context of telecommunications infrastructure, the redundancy created through a diversity of routes in Japan’s submarine internet cable system  limited disruptions to national connectivity during the megadisaster. However, the report emphasizes that redundancy must be calibrated to the needs and resources of a particular context. For private firms, redundancy and backups for critical infrastructure can be achieved through collaboration; after the GEJE, firms are increasingly collaborating to defray the costs of these investments.
The GEJE also illustrated the importance of planning for transportation resilience. A Japan Case Study Report on Road Geohazard Risk Management shows the role that both national policy and public-private agreements can play. In response to the GEJE, Japan’s central disaster legislation, the DCBA (Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act) was amended in 2012, with particular focus on the need to reopen roads for emergency response. Quick road repairs were made possible after the GEJE in part due to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT)’s emergency action plans, the swift action of the rapid response agency Technical Emergency Control Force (TEC-FORCE), and prearranged agreements with private construction companies for emergency recovery work. During the GEJE, roads were used as evacuation sites and were shown effective in controlling the spread of floods. After the disaster, public-private partnerships (PPPs) were also made to accommodate the use of expressway embankments as tsunami evacuation sites. As research on Resilient Infrastructure PPPs highlights, clear definitions of roles and responsibilities are essential to effective arrangements between the government and private companies. In Japan, lessons from the GEJE and other earthquakes have led to a refinement of disaster definitions, such as numerical standards for triggering force majeure provisions of infrastructure PPP contracts. In Sendai City, clarifying the post-disaster responsibilities of public and private actors across various sectors sped up the response process. This experience was built upon after the disaster, when Miyagi prefecture conferred operation of the Sendai International Airport  to a private consortium through a concession scheme which included refined force majeure definitions. In the context of a hazard-prone region, the agreement clearly defines disaster-related roles and responsibilities as well as relevant triggering events.
For full story click here >>
[Source: World Bank]

Leave a Reply