The Japan tsunami is a horrific disaster reminiscent of so many similar events over the past year (remember Haiti, Chile, Christchurch 1, and 2?). It brings up many emotions such that it is hard to be objective about the event and ensuing disaster. Yet, how can one be critical of the population living in coastal areas when most land inhabited by human settlement is prone to some disaster or another on a periodic basis? It is a relief seeing the relatively minor damage in major cities such as Tokyo, though it is of little consolation when contrasted against the pictures of devastated smaller towns. One would like to think that Tokyo was safe more due to its updated building codes than its relative distance from the epicenter. Even within the Miyagi prefecture, though inundated by a muddy river of soil, seawater and debris, many buildings survived. Can building codes and engineering provide the solutions to withstanding natural disasters? Japan showed that in addition, early warning and emergency preparedness played a very important part in reducing the number of calamities caused by the event.
Emergency preparedness, though, is also tied to information. Critical information emerges if we mix environmental science with mathematical probability analysis. The map of the world that could emerge would rate each region by its susceptibility to disaster, perhaps by compiling the information collected by USGS in their 1-pager earthquake summary across geography and time. This susceptibility could be a measure of the frequency as well as the force of occurrence. Maybe then we can come up with sane development policies that first address areas that are most vulnerable, and gradually work their way down the list. Evacuating large populations from the most vulnerable areas could be the first thing that comes to mind, but perhaps it should be the last resort – after shoring, engineering, and emergency preparedness have been fully explored. Is there much inhabitable land left in the world to accommodate such large forced migrations? More importantly, how would that be politically palatable? This recent article discusses how Japan became an expert in Disaster Preparation. There are some good resources that provide information on historic occurrences of disasters at a subcontinent level. The Annual Disaster Statistical Review released by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), is a great international overview of disasters. The International Disaster Database (EM-DAT) provides a searchable database of disasters by country. Good policy is driven by reliable and routinely updated data. While it is easy to approach emergency preparedness in a draconian manner and require either relocation of communities or the most stringent building codes, however in real life, codes for emergency preparedness (from tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and volcanic inundation) must carefully balance affordability and life safety. If focused on life safety rather than reducing property damage, the development costs of stringent codes can be reduced while keeping casualties to the minimum. For a sustainable future, however, we must continuously seek to maximize existing infrastructure and communities and resist the urge to develop the last few remaining natural areas in the world. For a country as conscious about sustainability as Japan, it will be interesting to see how it changes its approach to development in these vulnerable communities to avoid a similar level of disaster in the future, or whether it even thinks that that would be a reasonable goal to strive for.