The people living on the northeast coast of Japan had learned to expect large earthquakes. But despite being one of the best-prepared nations, they were caught off-guard by the force of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that devastated their coastline and led to the meltdown of reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Many areas of the world are far less prepared, and the effects of major earthquakes, hurricanes and floods can be even more far-reaching than they have been in Japan. But there are measures we can take to lessen the impacts of such events. A worldwide effort is underway to improve resilience against the forces of nature, and to link that effort to sustainable economic development.
At a forum held Wednesday evening at Columbia, “From Sendai to Rio – Cultivating a Disaster-Resilient Society for Sustainable Development,” panelists presented stark facts and a call for action by national and local governments around the world.
“The world is beset by its biggest boom business, and that’s disasters,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and an advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The forum was organized by Cynthia Rosenzweig of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Urban Climate Change Research Network, who moderated the event; other sponsors were the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction agency and the permanent mission of Japan to the UN.
The message was reinforced Wednesday by two strong earthquakes and a subsequent tsunami warning on the island of Sumatra that ignited fear and panic among residents there. The tsunami warning was eventually withdrawn, and relatively few injuries have been reported. But the event rekindled memories of the devastating 2004 quake and tsunami there that killed hundreds of thousands, said Margareta Wahlström, special representative to the UN secretary general for disaster risk reduction.
“Our job is to turn that fear into mitigating action,” she said.
She and other panelists urged people to look at disaster losses – the death toll, loss of buildings and economic costs – in a broader perspective, as losses in development, and to encourage investment by governments large and small in risk reduction and disaster resilience.
“Disaster reduction should be an integral part of sustainable development,” said Jun Yamazaki, ambassador of the permanent mission of Japan to the UN. In Japan, 20,000 people are still missing a year after last year’s Sendai earthquake and tsunami, which ripped apart or partially damaged 380,000 buildings, caused $200 million to $300 million in damages and ultimately led the nation to reconsider its policies on nuclear power.
Even so, Yamazaki said, damage from the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history was relatively low, in part because the country had invested for many years in protective infrastructure, evacuation plans and public education on how to respond to disasters.
On the island of Grenada in 2004, Hurricane Ivan wiped out the two major crops, nutmeg and cocoa, and in five hours destroyed the equivalent of two times the island’s GDP, said Henrietta Elizabeth Thompson, a former Grenadian government minister and now executive coordinator for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Nutmeg trees take a dozen years to mature, and their loss is an example of how ecological damage from disasters can affect generations of residents, Thompson said. She added that disaster preparedness will be a prime topic at the conference, known as Rio+20, to be held in June in Brazil.
More than half of the world’s 7 billion people now live in cities, and many of those growing metropolises sit on coastlines. The UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction has launched a campaign, “Making Cities Resilient,” to encourage citizens and local governments to act in ways that make their communities safer and better prepared for disaster, said Helena Molin Valdes, acting director of the UN program. The campaign offers tools such as a 10-point checklist for making cities resilient, including better coordination of services, public education, investment in critical infrastructure and improved land-use planning. So far, 1,014 cities have signed on, Valdes said.
“We need to measure not only losses but gains in resilience,” Valdes said.
New York City has begun an ambitious campaign of its own to shore up defenses against storms, floods and rising sea levels. The city has more than 520 miles of coastline packed with people, jobs and vital infrastructure – roads, subways, wastewater treatment plants, power plants and underground systems providing drinking water and electricity, said Adam Freed, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. The city is investing $1.5 billion in green infrastructure to reduce power consumption, cool the city and control stormwater runoff that can overwhelm sewage plants (a billion gallons flowing with every inch of rain that falls). The program incorporates white roofs, green roofs, green spaces, permeable surfaces and new building design standards.
With 12 to 24 inches of sea level rise from global warming predicted by the end of the century—possibly more—“it is going to get worse,” Freed said. “The good news is cities are on the front lines of this.”
Bangladesh is very much on the front lines, as well. The country sits on the world’s biggest river delta, and “the whole country is in effect a coastal city,” said Saber H. Chowdhury, a member of the Bangladesh parliament. A 16-inch rise in sea level would displace millions of people. The nation also sits in a tectonically active region. (Watch a video of the hazards faced by Bangladesh.)
“We have to invest in resilience; we have to have a culture of resilience; we have to be proactive” Chowdhury said.
He said, however, that there is a limit to how much can be accomplished through adaptation and preparation, and “there is no option to reducing greenhouse gases” to try to slow global warming. That means efforts by the more developed nations as well.
While Freed noted that New York City residents have a third of the per capita carbon footprint of the United States in general, Chowdhury said the entire nation of Bangladesh emits less greenhouse gas than New York City.
Supporting Wednesday’s forum were the Columbia Business School Center on Japanese Economy and Business, and three Earth Institute-affiliated centers: the Center for International Science Information Network, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.