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Lessons From Megadisasters

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Japan’s advanced Disaster Risk Management (DRM) system, built up during nearly 2,000 years of coping with natural risks and hazards, proved its worth in helping its people survive the Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE). The loss of life and property would have been far greater if the country’s policies and practices were ineffective.

I have spent the last three years in and out of Japan and I had the privilege to work with excellent professionals, academicians, community leaders, and concerned individuals, including more than 40 authors, from practitioners to award winning professors. I devoured information in the process of distilling knowledge built on thousands of crises and rehabilitations. I consumed myself in translating it into acceptable concepts, adaptable measures and agreeable visions for our counterparts and clients in developing countries. I became extremely emotional, and shared the same sense of pride they did for the quakeproof system that stopped all Shinkansen bullet trains and saved passengers, for the building codes that made a 9.0 earthquake not so deadly, or the meticulous system of pre-agreements and contingency plans that are triggered automatically. I also felt the same sense of hopelessness for the thousands of people who are still in temporary houses and may never come back home to Fukushima. There are many lessons learned through this analysis on how preventive investments pay and how effective it is to get prepared for the 'unexpected'-- or the fact that DRM is everyone's business and everyone has a role to play in prevention--as well as in emergency and reconstruction phases. But the main lesson that this project taught me is about the power of knowledge. We learned that knowledge is stronger and more important than infrastructure.

There are no 30 meter high dykes to stop tsunamis and there will never be. But there is knowledge, there are capacities, and there are actions that can be learned and exchanged. We understood that what we call a 'strong culture of prevention' made all the difference in Tohoku: A culture built on 2000 years of learning, made of building codes, evacuation techniques, early warning, well trained local communities, and even school children able to save hundreds of peers, as shown by the Kamaishi miracle.

When infrastructures collapse, it is the ability to react that makes the difference. Knowing what to do, when to do it, and how to get prepared for the unpredictable, that is what made the difference in Japan, and can make the difference in any place in the world.

Learning from Megadisasters was co-authored by experts in Japan and all over the world, and it aims to share Japanese knowledge on disaster risk management (DRM) and post-disaster reconstruction with countries vulnerable to disasters. The book will be launched on September 12 at the World Reconstruction Conference, with an exceptional panel of experts including: Sanjay Pradhan, Vice President, Leadership, Learning, and Innovation, the World Bank, Masahiro Kan, Japanese Executive Director, Professor Yoshiaki Kawata, Kansai University, Abha Joshi-Ghani, Director, Knowledge Exchange & Learning, the World Bank, Mladen Ivanovic, Executive Director, Croatian Association of Municipalities, Ronald Jackson, Executive Director, Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, Alex Kaplan Vice President, Swiss Re America Holding Corporation, Shingo Kochi, Senior Recovery Officer, International Recovery Platform, and Yuichi Ono, Professor, Tohoku University, Japan.

As GEJE showed and the book effectively documented, proactive approaches to risk management can reduce the loss of life and avert economic and financial setbacks. To be maximally effective, and to contribute to stability and growth over the long term, risk management from natural disasters should be mainstreamed into all aspects of development planning, and in all sectors of the economy. Learning from Japan can be crucial for many countries to avoid mistakes and to build on thousands of years of experience.


Federica Ranghieri

World Bank Program Leader for Sustainable Development for Egypt, Yemen, and Djibouti

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