Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Learning from the disasters in the world
YANAGISAWA Kae / Vice President, Japan International Cooperation Agency

April 17, 2015
From March 14 through 18, 2015, the Third United Nations Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction was held in Sendai City, Japan. The conference, attended by representatives from 187 UN member states, UN and other international organizations, NGOs and civil society organizations, adopted the "Sendai Declaration" and the "Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030". The participants of the conference had opportunities to visit areas around Sendai to observe recovery and reconstruction processes from the devastation of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunamis in 2011. In fact this was the reason that Japan proposed hosting the conference in Sendai.

Coincidentally, on March 13, just one day before the start of the Conference, a strong cyclone "Pam" hit the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. 166,000 people, two-thirds of the total population of the country (that is 250,000), were reported to be affected. Good news out of this tragedy was that the death toll as of March 24 was as small as 11. This was attributable to the efforts of the Government of Vanuatu to strengthen weather forecasting and early warning systems as well as pre-emptive evacuation of the population.

The affected people, however, faced enormous difficulties. The most serious issues were water and food. Clean water was lost as the sources were contaminated by the cyclone. This, together with food shortage, was an immense public health concern. More than 110,000 people reportedly lost their houses. Relief activities were extremely challenging as Vanuatu consists of many small islands. Recovery to normalcy would take long.

As we can see from this case, it is not only human lives and property that are lost in disasters; those who have survived also suffer. Therefore countries need to make every effort to reduce negative impacts of natural hazards through preventive measures, and also need to minimize the suffering of the population through sufficient preparation. In reality, however, affected people are often forced to live an unsafe and undignified life for a substantially long time period.

Humanitarian assistance from the international community can play a positive role in reducing the difficulties of the disaster-affected countries. Humanitarian organizations with long history and experience, including the United Nations organizations and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, have been constantly improving the contents and the methods of relief activities so that better assistance is provided. These efforts include establishing frameworks for promoting information sharing and coordination among humanitarian actors.

However, humanitarian assistance is not free from criticism. The practice of sending unsolicited goods never ends. Humanitarian organizations tend to prioritize visibility in choosing the sites of operations so that their activities are broadcast or reported in their home countries, leaving remote areas unattended. Coordination among international humanitarian organizations are often made without involving host governments, or coordination meetings are held in a language, i.e. English, that the officials of the host governments do not understand. Furthermore, in many cases assisting governments see disasters as opportunities for promoting diplomatic relations with affected countries, and even compete with each other in the speed and the quantity of assistance.

With these negative aspects, humanitarian assistance may impose extra burden on affected countries, despite the best of intentions on the donor's part. Disaster-affected states need to understand this risk and exercise their wisdom in accepting international humanitarian assistance with clear strategy.

Looking back at the situations in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, support to the affected population was far from ideal. The affected people were forced to stay in evacuation centers in longer periods than any time before, without sufficient privacy and specific care for women, the elderly, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups. Sanitation and nutrition conditions were also poor. International assistance, which was offered by more than 160 countries, was received in a reactive manner without clear announcement of preferred goods and services.

This tells us that even an advanced country like Japan may face difficulties in responding to an unprecedented and unimagined crisis. Experience is the key to cope with these shortcomings. Unfortunately, however, the number of disasters that a person may experience in his/her lifetime, either as a disaster victim or a responder, is limited. The only way to fill this gap is to learn lessons from other countries' experiences and strengthen imaginative thinking. It is desired that Japan, while extending humanitarian assistance to countries stricken by disasters, learn how the societies and the population are affected and apply the lessons in responding to its own disasters.

Kae Yanagisawa is Vice President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

柳沢 香枝 / 国際協力機構理事  

2015年 4月 17日









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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Learning from the disasters in the world