Stories from the field

Day 2017-02-21

Nicola Craig Hora – Blog 6: Planning for the Unimaginable

Disasters are unpredictable and can occur without warning. It is this unpredictability that complicates the act of planning for a large-scale emergency event. How can a region plan for scenarios it has no experience with and how can one possibly train emergency personnel for every single possible disaster situation? These are questions that cities are left facing in the 21st century and what has led to the creation of international frameworks for action such as the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015) and more recently the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030). Though the number of deaths caused by disasters continues to decrease every year, recent studies by UNISDR show that the number of people affected by disasters is increasing.

Building resiliency is a continual process and with the new Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction there is a new international pressure for regions across the world to invest in disaster risk reduction software and hardware. This framework emphasizes the importance of establish strong networks prior to disasters so that research and information can be shared between individuals of all levels.

Since the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, Japan has experienced a number of disaster events such as the 2004 Choetsu Earthquake, the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, and the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake. These earthquakes provided the Japanese with regular reminders to the horrific damage that our earth’s regular movements can create without warning. Japan learned a lot from the experiences of the City of Kobe during the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and it sparked a number of institutional changes in Japan’s approach to disaster management. The earthquake also paved the way to the Hyogo Framework for Action.

The Hyogo Framework for Action was established by the United Nations in 2005, 10 years after the Kobe Earthquake. Inside were lessons learned from recent disasters, including the Kobe Earthquake and it was a call for nations to take actions towards creating resilient communities. The UN acknowledged that without making disaster risk reduction a priority, nations would be unable to meet other UN programs such as the Millennium Development Goals; society cannot develop sustainably without investing in DRR software and hardware. In the Hyogo Framework, the UN stressed that “DRR is a cost effective investment in preventing future losses” (Sendai, 2015) and it welcomed a “broader and more people-centered preventative approach to disaster risk” (2015).  Engaging different stakeholders in DRR work extends to vulnerable groups and the framework stresses the need for the active participant of individuals from disadvantaged groups.

The Hyogo Framework evolved into the current Sendai Framework in 2015 and it will stay active in its current form until 2030. The Sendai Framework was created through extensive assessments and reviews of the Hyogo Framework, with special attention made to the experiences of other nation and regions’ use of the previous framework’s advice in their DRR plans. Sendai promotes the creation of a comprehensive multi-hazard approach to DRR that incorporates multiple stakeholders at various levels. The answer to how a city does that has yet to be answered. UN Habitat has explored in some of its publications how resilience needs to be embedded into urban planning. City planning cannot be implemented without adaptations to local contexts. Choosing infrastructure locations and construction standards need to align with local risks (UN Habitat, 2013). But as was seen and experienced during the Tohoku disasters in 2011 is that hardware investments are not enough. Cities need to plan around communities and disaster education needs to be a focal point of development.

Moving forward communities inside and outside Japan need to routinely conduct disaster drills that address a wide range of different emergency scenarios. Whole communities need to be involved and vulnerable populations such as the elderly need to be targeted and included in trainings. Older buildings need to be reinforced and upgraded in order to survive large earthquakes and hazard maps need to be updated to provide communities with a proper understanding of the vulnerabilities that they are exposed to. Medical institutions need to stock medical supplies with at least a 2 weeks’ supply and a bigger emphasis on preventative medicine needs to be made at the community level. Medical professionals need to be assigned to evacuation and volunteer centers and individuals need to be provided with regular health checkups in order to prevent illness. In order to address gaps in service, better communication networks need to be installed and innovative resources like cloud-based medical files need to become the norm.

Disaster response planning unfortunately is accompanied by a lot of trial and error that has resulted in thousands of deaths in Japan alone in the last 20 years. With the increasing threat of climate change and the number of fast-growing cities across the world, the importance of preparing for disasters is at an all-time high. Unfortunately though disaster is a common occurrence in Japan, little is being done on the individual community level to prepare for disasters. In a survey conducted by the City of Yokohama in 2015, though approximately 90% of citizens believe that there is a strong possibility of a large earthquake occurring in Yokohama in the near future, only 50% of citizens participate in disaster drills, 40% have emergency stockpiles with more than 3 days’ worth of food and water, and citizen familiarity with the city’s readily available disaster risk reduction pamphlets and hazards maps remains around 30-40%. Communities need to look past borders to connect with other communities around the world. We can share information, on disaster prevention, response, and recovery. Disaster risk reduction is not a solitary activity, we are all one world and one big community.

The UN and other international bodies provide governments with DRR policies that outline best practices. There is however limited support or advice on how to apply policies and this is why looking at case studies from different emergencies is vital to developing proper emergency responses. During the Tohoku disasters there were many things that Japan did wonderfully but there were also a lot of missteps that cost thousands of people their lives. Large-scale disasters are bound to happen in the future and with a large growing ageing society, population increases, and fast-paced urbanization, their impacts will continue to increase. It is becoming more evident that countries and cities need to share their knowledge and experiences in order to promote international cooperation but also to ensure that our world is full of resilient communities. 

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