New challenges from natural disasters

New challenges from natural disasters

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The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the 10th anniversary of which is next month, illustrated the challenges of how best to care for survivors in huge urban areas dislocated by a catastrophic event.

The 2011 disaster began with a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the most powerful recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful in the world since 1900. This triggered tsunami waves more than 40 meters, traveling up to 10 kilometers inland at up 700 kph.

The quake had similarities to the 8.5 magnitude one that struck Japan in 1896, when the quake and its tsunami killed about 27,000 people. The 2011 quake and tsunami, and their aftermath, killed nearly 20,000. To put that into perspective, the Japanese death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is less than 7,700.

While the number of deaths in 2011 was still tragically high, scientific, technological and institutional developments kept the earthquake and tsunami from claiming as many victims as in 1896. Even so, residents of Sendai had only eight to 10 minutes’ warning, and more than 100 evacuation sites were washed away.

Welcome as the mitigation of loss of life was, the 2011 disaster highlighted an intensified challenge for modern societies. That is, how best to care for hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of survivors who are dislocated by a severe natural disaster. 

Providing drinking water, food and shelter to those affected in 2011 was a major logistical challenge. Hundreds of thousands of Tokyo residents who work far from their homes and depend on modern urban transport systems to return each evening found themselves stuck in office buildings ill equipped to handle them.

The challenge is intensified by growing urbanization. In 2018, about 55 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas, a number that is expected to increase to 68 percent by 2050. This trend, combined with the overall growth of the world’s population, could add another 2.5 billion people to urban areas by 2050.

The policies needed for dealing with these issues are complex, and not easy to conceptualise or execute. However, change is badly needed, and the longer it takes, the tougher it will become to achieve and the more loss of life there may be when a disaster happens again.

Andrew Hammond

Tokyo is the world’s largest city, with about 37 million inhabitants in 2018, followed by New Delhi with 29 million, Shanghai with 26 million, and Mexico City and São Paulo, each with about 22 million. Today, Cairo, Mumbai, Beijing and Dhaka all have close to 20 million inhabitants. By 2030, the world is projected to have 43 of these megacities of more than 10 million inhabitants, almost double the number today.

About 80 million of Japan’s 126 million people are concentrated on the Pacific shore of Honshu island, the region that includes Tokyo. Such high density makes populations more vulnerable to extreme natural hazards ranging from earthquakes to heatwaves and floods.  

This, in turn, requires disaster planners and policymakers to rethink past practices. The growing size of citiesmeans that people sometimes cannot physically escape in the event of extreme hazards. Where attempts have been made to evacuate multimillion populations, lives have sometimes been lost in the transport systems as they seized up. 

This means society will increasingly face the question of how to provide refuge for people during and after disasters, and how those shelters should be integrated into the design of structures. The problem is much more complex than simply building a bunker in the basement. 

Refuges have different roles for different types of disaster. For tsunamis, a shelter is usually needed for only a short period, as with high winds, tropical cyclones and landslides. For longer lasting disasters, such as volcanic eruptions, people have more warning, and behave differently by, for instance, bringing goods and even animals to the shelters in rural areas.

Regulators, planners and engineers are only beginning to grapple with this kind of question. It is already clear that communities in urban areas will have to better understand and be more prepared for risks of hazards and need to be involved in addressing them. This will involve training communities to deal with a range of potential natural disasters. 

In addition, more urgent consideration will need to be given to the design of shelters in urban and also in rural areas. This will require intensive study and resources to ensure good design and effectiveness. 

The policies needed for dealing with these issues are complex, and not easy to conceptualise or execute. However, change is badly needed, and the longer it takes, the tougher it will become to achieve and the more loss of life there may be when a disaster happens again.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics    
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