Beyond Disaster

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Photo caption: From left, Hiroshima native Mieko Shiroma of Soka Gakkai International; Vince…

Georgia (Mar 27, 2014)

Photo caption: From left, Hiroshima native Mieko Shiroma of Soka Gakkai International; Vince Williams, Kennesaw State guraduate student and Peace Corps Fellow; and the Honorable Kazuo Sunaga, Consul General of Japan in Atlanta prepare to plant sprouting trees descended from a Gingko Biloba tree that survived the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. 

“Year of Japan” conference emphasizes crisis risk reduction, humanitarian relief; offers Hiroshima tribute

A message of hope in the face of disaster dominated events during the “Year of Japan” Humanitarian Responses to Crisis International Conference at Kennesaw State March 21.

Conference speakers and presenters drew on Japan’s experience in dealing with some of the worst natural disasters in modern history – most recently the 2011 earthquake and tsunami – to share lessons learned about minimizing risk and loss; providing compassionate, humanitarian response and sustainable redevelopment after disaster strikes.

“Because of its own experience, whereever there is a disaster anywhere in the world, Japan has been a first responder, helping governments, civil society and victims, respond and rebuild,” said Dan Paracka, “Year of Japan” annual study and conference coordinator and director of academic initiatives for the Institute for Global Initiatives.

A special tribute during the conference also extended the message of a more hopeful world, one free of man-made crises like war. Three seedlings descended from a Ginkgo Biloba tree that survived the Aug. 6, 1945, bombing of Hiroshima were symbolically planted in decorative pots during a ceremony on the second floor balcony of Kennesaw State’s new Zuckerman Museum. The University’s Institute for Global Initiatives and Museum of History and Holocaust Education will permanently plant the trees, which were provided by the UNITAR Green Legacy Hiroshima Project.

"The planting of these trees will help our community and future students commemorate this tragic period in world history, and we're honored to have the Gingko trees from Hiroshima as a reminder of the importance of peace," said Catherine Lewis, director of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education, executive director of the Department of Museums, Archives and Rare Books and professor of history and women's studies.

Representatives of Japan’s government, industry and civil society speaking at the conference demonstrated the nation’s commitment to sharing its experience with the world, even as it manages response to natural disasters within its own borders. The 2011 disasters alone caused 15,000 deaths and $300 billion in property damage in Japan. 

“This is about how Japan has conquered and coexisted with disaster,” said Kimio Takeya, visiting senior advisor working on disaster risk reduction for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and a conference keynote speaker. “The world’s worst natural disasters include earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and typhoons. Japan has experienced all four. More than 50 percent of the population lives below the flood plain.”

Japan began its modern approach to developing risk-reduction strategies following a major flood in 1910 with an emphasis on a common sense goal of preventing the same vulnerability and of  “building back better,” Takeya said. 

Major risk-reduction initiatives and continuous investments Japan implemented since 1950 have significantly reduced the loss of lives and property resulting from floods.  They include widening and dredging rivers to improve channels; building and strengthening dikes, revising building codes and tying them to land use; and implementing early warning systems and a staged approach to evacuations, which has resulted in a successful evacuation rate of 97 percent in recent flood events. The country also has used its technological prowess to increase risk literacy; develop real-time simulation and river information systems via the Internet and mobile technology. 

Success in disaster risk reduction requires a three-pronged approach encompassing self- support/self-defense, public support and mutual support, Takeya explained.

“Each disaster, even landslides resulting from earthquakes, has forerunning phenomenon that allows predictions so you can adequately implement properly planned evacuations,” Takeya said. “We know to expect a tsunami 30 minutes after an earthquake, for example.”  

Acknowledging that Japan’s greatest lesson is “continuous adaptation to change to deal with changing risks,” the strategies Japan continues to implement will not only help it avoid the level of loss it suffered in 2011, but will help organizations like JICA provide assistance to disaster-ravaged areas, especially in the developing world.

Even though preventing disasters requires tremendous investment, Takeya believes the risk reduction lessons already learned can help Japan and other nations build more resilient societies.  He shared JICA’s recent experiences helping in redevelopment efforts following flooding in Manila, Pakistan, China, Thailand and the Philippines. 

“What JICA hopes to achieve is something like a disaster risk-reduction bible, and to find ways to mainstream these strategies into good government policy,” said Takeya, who was asked to present Japan’s lessons for a United Nations Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction in May 2011, just two months after the East Japan earthquake and tsunami.

The ongoing safety of Japan following the earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident shifted attention to issues of energy, safety and international cooperation. 

Brian Woodall, associate professor of Georgia Tech’ Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, provided a historical overview of the evolution of Japan’s energy policies, which have become more ambitious towards increasing the nation’s energy independence and percentage of electricity generated by renewable sources since the 2011 catastrophes. 

Woodall cited the passage of a 2012 renewable energy law, which mandates that Japan’s power companies purchase a certain percentage of electricity from renewable source companies such as solar, wind and geothermal for prices that are fixed for a given period of time.  The new law represents the breakup of powerful energy monopolies and will reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power, he said. 

Kenji Tateiwa, manager of nuclear power programs for Tokyo Electric Power Company, is based in Washington and leads collaborative efforts with U.S. nuclear facilities based on lessons learned from Japan’s recent crisis to safely decommission the Fukushima plant, which he says for now is contained.

Conferees also heard from Chuck Casto, a former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission executive who led the agency’s support to Japan’s government following the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster.

“I believe the nuclear community is working hard to make sure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes, that we don’t allow more incidents like Fukishima and Chernobyl to occur,” said Casto, who pointed out the similarity in some of the issues involved with the Fukushima incident and the disappearance of Malaysia flight 370.  “As a government, there’s a big different when you’re dealing with another government as opposed to a private company.”

Other conference presentations focused on humanitarian response to crises such as providing relief and delivering needed services compassionately.  Highlights included:

·      Representatives of multinational corporations – Bruce Karas, vice president of environment and sustainability with Coca-Cola Refreshments, and Joe Ruiz, director of the UPS Foundation’s Humanitarian Relief Program – discussed their companies’ efforts to lend corporate resources like logistics, volunteers, food and water to assist the people and government following the 2011 disasters. 

·      Keynote speaker Tae Namba, board member and director of International Relations with the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia, discussed the role of civil society in promoting sustainable, peaceful development and providing emergency relief through partnerships, collaborations and the pooling of resources.

·      Taro Hashimoto and Mikio Yamane, both youth division leaders, represented Soka Gakkai and Soka Gakkai International, a lay Buddhist movement that promotes peace, culture and education around the world.  Hashimoto described his experiences leading a relief crew that worked 30 days in Sendai City after the 2011 earthquake. Yamane is project manager for the Tohoku Region Disaster Recovery Project,


-- Sabbaye McGriff


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