A long way to go

Apr 2011 | No Comment

There will be several issues in the short, medium and long term recovery process at the aftermath of the disaster

Rajib Shaw

Kyoto University,

An earthquake of magnitude 9.0 occurred on 11th of March at 14:46 in the east of Japan, causing a tsunami which hit the east coast, and made extensive damages in five prefectures: Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki, and has made direct and indirect impacts to the other nearby provinces including Saitama, Chiba, Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectures. As of March 21, the confirmed number of death is 8,450 with reported missing 12,931. Thus, the total casualty may be over more than 21,000 people, and therefore making it as the worst disaster Japan has experienced after the World War II.

Highlights of the disaster situation:

A few characteristics features of the disaster include:
Co-occurrences of different hazards:

In the current context, there was a massive earthquake of magnitude 9.0, followed by a gigantic tsunami [in some cases, the height may be more than 15 m, and in some case inland water more than 4 km]. This was followed by the nuclear meltdown, which posed another threat to the already existing grooming situation. Also, there was a cold spell [with snow fall in several parts of the worst affected areas] which also affected the relief and rescue operation. The aftershocks continued for a long time with larger magnitude than the usual one, which shows stronger activity in the fault regions. In the disaster management, we often talk about the worst case scenario, and the disaster preparedness needs to target the worst case scenario. The current multi-disaster situation shows the actual worst case scenario with multiple occurrences of different hazards at the same time. This situation is also one on the rare case of natural disaster causing industrial disasters.

Severity of damages:

The damage level was extremely high, where the tsunami washed away most of the built environment close to the coastal areas, includes vital infrastructures [water, electricity], roads, railways, airports, schools, hospitals, government buildings [in some cases village office], houses etc. The damage was possibly beyond any imagination and expectation. Most of the designated evacuation centers were destroyed.

Perception-action gaps:

There were some cases where people were trapped under the debris of the collapsed buildings due to earthquake. This was a major barrier for them to evacuate when the tsunami warning was heard. The area affected by the current disaster is well known for its high hazard and vulnerability. There are significant amount of research which simulated the trigger of earthquake and tsunami of the regions. Evacuation drills have been practiced for years with different group of people through initiatives of multi-stakeholders. On 27th of February 2010, there was a major earthquake in Chile, which posed a tsunami threat to Japan east coast [the current earthquake and tsunami affected areas] almost after 18 hours of the occurrence of the earthquake. A tsunami warning and evacuation order was issued in the Japanese east coast after 50 years [after the Valdivia, Chile earthquake of 1960 which caused a tsunami and killed more than 142 people in Sanriku coast of east Japan]. When the tsunami warning was issued on 1st of March, only a few % of the coastal communities [somewhere between 6-7%] actually evacuated, and many people went to the coastal areas to look at the condition of the sea and then take a judgment whether to evacuate or not. People in the coastal areas have their hazard maps and often the earthquake and tsunami issues are discussed in the media. Thus, there is a very high level of perception, but with limited actions at individual and community level.

The last mile communication:

At the aftermath of the disaster, a survey was conducted by the Weather News of Chiba city [ref: ] about the people’s reaction [target: 37,000 responders with 7,900 responders from the five worst affected provinces of Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki]. In the five mostly affected prefectures, the survey [ref:] showed that only 8% of the responders mentioned that they took shelters in the higher land. It was found that on an average it took 23 minutes for the residents to know about the tsunami, although the warning was issued almost simultaneously when the earthquake was recorded [the earthquake happened at 14:46, the tsunami warning was issues at 14:49, and the tsunami expected time and height was declared at 14:50]. In Iwate prefecture, the lead time was too short. However, in Miyagi it was an average of 10 minutes, in Fukushima an average of 20 minutes, in Hokkaido, Aomori and Ibaraki an average of 40 minutes. While for the Iwate residents possibly people got entrapped in tsunami while evacuating, however the high casualty in Miyagi and Fukushima, it surely shows the failure of the last mile communication.

Massive numbers of evacuees:

In the current disaster [earthquake and tsunami], there was an unexpected number of evacuees due to the devastating nature of the event. The nuclear meltdown incidence also added another level of seriousness to the current threat. An evacuation order was made for the people living within 20 km of the nuclear reactor. Thus, the number of evacuees increased to almost more than 350,000 people, which was totally unprecedented.

Evacuation centers outside the city/ town/ villages:

Usually in Japan, the evacuation centers are the schools or the public buildings in the community. However, in the current disaster, due to the extensive damage and nuclear emergency, people need to evacuate outside their town, city or village. The total number of evacuation center is more than 2300 places all over Japan. In some cases, the whole village or town with the village and /or town government made long distant evacuation. It has s serious consequence in terms of physical, psychological, institutional and socio-economic issues of the recovery process .

Aged population:

Many parts of Japan, as well as the affected areas have aged population and a significant part of the population needs regular medical care. Since the time lapse between the earthquake and the tsunami was very short, the evacuation of the aged population was a major challenge. At the aftermath, due to failure of the vital lifelines, the medical care of this group was population was seriously affected, in addition to the patients from the disasters.

Environmental issues:

The tsunami has brought huge about of debris including housing materials, broken boats, cars, trees etc, and will have severe environmental consequence. Clearing of rubbles is a major task, and needs to be done with utmost care. The tsunami also made severe impacts to the agriculture land, which will need long term recovery, at least in next 2-3 years. The nuclear meltdown has started its effects, although minor in the first 10 days, due to its contamination to the ground and effectively to the food chain. The earthquake largely sank the ground level of the Pacific coast of Tohoku region and northern part of Kanto region. The risk of the submergence and flood in these regions has become larger than before the earthquake . Therefore, it is necessary to pay special attention to the tide level and to prepare for the submergence and flood in these regions, especially during the spring tide, when the flood tide level becomes higher than usual.

Future issues and challenges:

There will be several issues in the short, medium and long term recovery process at the aftermath of the disaster. There will be several future issues, which need to be addresses at different stages of the recovery process. These are as follow:


The key word at the aftermath of any major disaster is the coordination and proper management. The coordination is not restricted among the government departments, it has also a significant implication to the non-government organizations and other relief based organizations. A total coordination center needs to be set up at the prefecture level, which should be connected to the central coordination center in the upper level, and city or town coordination point, as the lower governance structure. The one-point coordination is of extreme importance to avoid confusion and mis-management. Sector based approach is preferred based on the past experiences, like shelter, health, education, livelihood etc.


The related issue is sharing right information at the right time. Due to natural reason, there exist panic and mis-perception on different levels of information. Media plays an important role in reducing the panic, and sharing proper information to the people and communities. Due to evacuation in the far distant area, the proper information flow and information linkage is of utmost importance.


Many of the local governments [town, village level governments] have lost their personnel as well as people. This will have a severe impact on the recovery process, since several of the expertise in the local government was lost. In this junction, collaboration with non-government actors [like professional NGOs, academics, professional societies, private entities] will be required in these local governments. Also, support from other neighboring and non-affected local governments [earlier experiences of disaster recovery] will be helpful.

Volunteer management:

At the aftermath, there are flows of volunteers from different parts of the country. This disaster is also no exception. Volunteer coordination centers are already set-up at different locations to make proper coordination. Volunteer coordination needs to be properly linked to the two above points, linkages to government coordination system, and information flow [linkage to media]. Two related issues need to be kept in mind: first, the roles and types of volunteer changes over time, and often past experiences provide important information. The second point is that there are often different intensity of volunteer initiatives in the same affected areas, which needs to be distributed evenly.

Temporary shelter:

The temporary shelter construction is already started, with an initial estimate of 32,800. This would be spread in different parts of the five most affected provinces. The allocation of people in the temporary shelter is an important issue. This is to be noted that people may live there for 3-5 years, and the neighborhood relationship is of utmost importance. Therefore, proper attention needs to be made when allocation of temporary shelter is done. The location of the temporary shelter is also of importance, keeping in mind the high level of seismic activities in the region.

Relocation versus in-situ reconstruction:

At the aftermath of several disasters, especially in case of coastal hazards, there is always a challenge to choose between in-situ reconstruction [which is desirable and preferred by the residents] versus relocation [which cannot be avoided due to new policy and regulation and thinking of longer term safety and security]. If relocation is decided, proper strategy and policy needs to be incorporated for sustainable and adaptive relocation. Some of the examples from 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami will be useful in this regard.

Adoption of village or town:

Keeping in mind the vastness of the damages in the current disaster, integrated and consolidated approach is required from all parts of Japan. Adoption of a village or town or a neighborhood can be a good approach, which is practiced in different parts of the world after major disasters. Here also, proper coordination is required in the adoption process. This means that when a city X adopts a village or town Y, it takes care of different aspects of the recovery process. Based on the available resources, the adoption process can be coordinated based on sectors, like health, education, shelter, food, livelihood support etc.

One village one shelter policy:

As a long term sustainable recovery, a “one village one shelter policy” can be adopted widely, or at least in some critical parts of the coastal prefecture. This means that a shelter needs to be built in the close vicinity of the coastal areas to reduce the time of evacuation. It will be have a significant cost implication, however, this needs to be properly designed and planned based on the available simulations of the existing fault system and expected tsunami arrival time.

People’s resilience:

Finally, the whole recovery process depends on the people’s power, its networking, neighborhood tie, and resilience. People of Japan are known for its resilience and to cope with the natural disasters. This disaster recovery will also show people’s power through strengthening the resilience among the affected people. A total recovery needs time, people are strong, and should be chased with time. A proper well coordinated, planned and decisive recovery policy with well-thought participation of different stakeholders will be useful and efficient.


1. [in Japanese]

2. In Futaba-cho of Fuakushima prefecture,the whole village was evacuated. This is the same situation as that of Miyake-mura during Miyakejima volcanic eruptions. The other example is Kawaguchi-mura where the local government also moved along with the local
residents. 70% of the 3,000 people village were affected, and rest 30%, a number of 525 peopleevacuated along with the local government.

3. Source: JMA:

My Coordinates
Survey Camp
Agrim Gupta
Mark your calendar

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