When disaster strikes, in whatever form, it often has a devastating impact on the towns, cities, communities and economies caught up in the catastrophe.
Often there are long term consequences. Once domestic and international aid has helped to limit the initial damage and potential loss of life, how can communities be rebuilt and restored? How can the local economy get back on track?
It’s been more than a decade since an undersea earthquake set off a tsunami which devastated parts of Japan’s northeastern coast, causing extensive damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
It was the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, with more than a hundred thousand residents evacuated from the area.
Eleven years on, the painstaking work of decommissioning and decontaminating the station is still ongoing. Through these years of work, many of the questions above about recovering from disaster have been posed - and some of them answered.
With the Fukushima nuclear accident as a case study, Euronews hosted a debate on this topic, with a panel of experts discussing the challenges and successes from the ongoing clean-up in Japan, the lessons other countries can learn from it, as well as the lessons from other disasters.
You can watch the full debate in the video player above.
On our panel were:
Daiju Takahashi, Managing Director of Eat and Energize the East, and President of NoMA Lab
Joanna Faure Walker, Professor Professor of Earthquake Geology and Disaster Risk Reduction, University College London Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction
Mario Flores, Director, Field Operations, Disaster Risk Reduction and Response, Habitat for Humanity International
Noboru Takamura, Professor, University of Nagasaki and Director, The Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum
Context is critical
The panel all agreed on the principle that context is critical to recovering from disaster. Mario Flores, whose organisation helped in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan, explained: “The context, the social and economic context in which a disaster takes place is very determinant in how the response is going to play out. It’s not the same to have an earthquake in a place with working rules, building codes.”
In a country without these codes and rules, the effect of a natural disaster can be heightened, he said.
Agreeing with this point, Joanna Faure Walker explained the highest hazard risks are in the subduction zones, where oceanic plates meet continental plates, resulting in higher frequency of earthquakes. “In terms of risks it’s going to be aligned to the magnitude of the earthquake, but it’s also going to be where the poorest communities are, the least resilient communities.”
She added that it also depends on the historical record, and cultural preparedness - whether people in the country know there is a high risk. “So the actual risk may be disproportionate to the hazard because of that lack of awareness, lack of building codes, either through not having them or through them not being enforced,” she said.
Who is responsible for disaster risk mitigation?
Debating this question, the panel agreed that there is a mix of personal and governmental responsibility.
“It really varies where you are in the world, in terms of how people see their own responsibility, what’s there in legislation, and what’s there in a social contract, informally between the government and the people,” Faure Walker said.
While a nuclear power station is the responsibility of private companies or governments, communities do at times take matters into their own hands.
That can work both ways, she warned. Recounting an example in Japan where a sea wall was erected by the community to protect against tsunamis, she said that when warned about an incoming tsunami, some residents chose not to evacuate. “There were some cases where people chose not to escape because they had been part of building a wall to protect them. That’s not to say that’s not a good initiative, it’s fantastic. But it comes back to education, and understanding what warnings mean.”
“So much of risk communication is understanding uncertainty, and how we make sure we trigger safety-seeking behaviour.” That can come from the government, or the community, she added.
Restoring trust with the ‘human factor’
Upon hearing about the tsunami that hit Fukushima in 2011, Daiju Takahashi quit his job to go and help - so he saw the devastation first hand.
During the debate he recounted the damage. Around 16,000 people died, while 160,000 people evacuated their local communities in the immediate aftermath. The agriculture and fishing industries were badly hit, with 20,000 hectares of farmland swamped, and 30,000 fishing boats destroyed.
“However it wasn’t just physical damage, it was also physiological due to the power station explosion,” he said. “We had to not just rebuild infrastructure, but we also had to regain psychological trust on the part of consumers on the safety of food products from that region.”
Crucial to this topic of psychological trust is the issue of radioactive tritium in the water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. It’s a nuclear byproduct that cannot be filtered from water, so the Japanese government plans to dilute it to legal concentrations, before discharging the treated water into the ocean. Noboru Takamura explained that there is still a lack of understanding about the realities of tritium.
“Tritium is a weak radiation, so after diluting to an appropriate concentration it is discharged to the ocean”, he said, adding this happens at nuclear power stations worldwide, including in European countries.
“Many residents in Fukushima prefecture are starting to understand about Tritium. But the problem is many Japanese still do not have enough information about it.” This is a fact that may cause issues for fishing products, he added. “Education about treated water is very important in Japan.”
So how can trust be rebuilt in sea and agricultural products from the region, domestically and internationally? For Takahashi, the “human factor” is critical.
Taking the fishing industry as an example, he said the industry was already in decline before the power station accident.
“For consumers the supply chain was destroyed so they had switched to produce from other regions. So even if we rebuild the supply chain infrastructure and we get back to the pre-disaster state, from the consumer’s point of view, there’s no reason to switch back to products from regions that were devastated,” he said.
They needed to come up with new values and products that were attractive commercially.
“We realised bringing fishermen, farmers and consumers together, would actually create new values. Consumers had never interacted with fishermen in their lives. Knowing what the fishermen did, that was the source of the new value in the industry.”
This helped to rebuild trust in the products, he said. While science is the foundation in rebuilding trust and confidence, it wasn’t enough in itself.
Chefs were also a “critical element” in building trust in products again. They maximise the value of food products, said Takahashi, adding: “They are the best translators of the values created by farmers and fishermen, and consumers do trust them.”
Building back better
In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, Mario Flores explained the emphasis is on relief, saving lives, and trying to prevent further damage. Then there is a period of early recovery, working with the communities to understand their needs and aspirations for getting back to normal.
Across the transition from relief to recovery and rebuilding is support coming from a number of different sources, such as government, relief agencies, and NGOS, who all need to coordinate their efforts. “That is a very important function that needs to happen, if there's no coord then all these efforts will be disconnected and we’ll be wasting a lot of valuable resources,” said Flores.
But he emphasises it is crucial to build back better, with better markets, connectivity, housing and infrastructure. “We don’t want to be rebuilding the risk that existed before,” he said. “We want to be building resilience within the communities affected so they can be ready.”
The panel was then asked for final pieces of advice on responding and reconstructing from disaster.
“Have a family plan. Know what warnings might come. And evacuate if you can,” said Faure Walker.
“To make the community more resilient, we should transcend the borders,” said Takahashi. “Societies constrained by borders are less resilient, so we should always consciously try to transcend psychological borders, between industries, communities, ages and all kinds of borders.”
Flores advised that people should “be aware of the prevalent hazards in your community, and be ready to take action to make your home more resilient and more prepared for disasters,” while Takamura said it was vital to learn from previous experiences.