Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Off Topic: Lessons to Learn from Japan

It started off with 100, then 300, followed by 900, and if latest reports are to be believed, the expected death toll is over 10,000 from the Killer Tsunami and Earthquake that rocked Japan last week. 

The magnitude of destruction and havoc wreaked by nature on that resilient nation is unfathomable and is beginning to assume eschatological proportions with each passing day, making it certainly one of the worst natural catastrophes in modern history.

About 1,00,000 Japanese troops have been pressed into service, approximately 2,00,000 people have been evacuated from affected areas and about 2,15,000 people are in shelters. It goes without saying that food, water and electricity are in acute short supply. 

Even for the richest nation in Asia, a calamity of this malevolence poses a mounting humanitarian and financial crisis at an unprecedented scale, which is best reflected thus:

"We have requested funeral homes across the nation to send us many body bags and coffins. But we simply don't have enough," 

Notwithstanding all this, the loss of lives would have been even more exponential had it not been for Japan’s preparedness for a mega-disaster such as this. From what I gathered from news reports:

"If there is any place in the world ready for a disaster of the scale and scope of this historic calamity, it is Japan," 

According to Stacey White, senior research consultant at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Japan has shown the rest of the world just how many lives can be saved with a reliable warning network, a state-of-the-art infrastructure and a strong government response.

According to Toshitaka Katada, a professor at Gunma University's Disaster Social Engineering Laboratory, the Japanese government, for several decades now, has made protecting citizens from disasters, a state responsibility. He says:

“Local administrative bodies are trained to quickly issue alerts and evacuation orders and distribute food and blankets at shelters.

Japan’s most prized asset- technology- has been employed to bolster the preparedness of a country that experiences close to 1500 tremors a year. Japan is today considered the world leader in quake-proofing technology.

Law too has kept pace with technology. In 2007, a law was passed which mandates tougher quake-proofing of new buildings. According to one news report:

“Under the law, skyscrapers, factories, power stations, bridges and railway stations must be built or retrofitted to withstand stronger tremors, so that a magnitude-five quake would now normally cause little damage.

If a number of lives have been saved by these quake-proofed buildings, I think it tells us that rule of law plays a critical role because a hospital or a school is less susceptible to quake if the quality of quake-proofing has not been compromised on by a state machinery which has zero tolerance for graft. (I wonder how effective this law would have been in India considering that our government swears and lives by graft...)

For those interested, the 2005 UNISDR Japan Country Report neatly sums up Japan’s preparedness to face disasters. It makes for compulsory reading at a time like this.

I would love to go on a rant on how unprepared we are as a nation for natural disasters, but I guess that is old news. I fondly hope we draw some lessons from Japan and prove to ourselves that we, as a nation, are not as incorrigible as we think we are.

Anyways, one just prays that in this hour of grief, Japan digs deep into its legendary never-say-die spirit to rebuild itself and to show to the world what is it that makes Japan the awe-inspiring success story that it has been for the better part of its history.

On an aside, the one entity that has proven itself immensely useful is Google. Google’s person-finder application and its crisis response project have done for Google what a million corporate social responsibility initiatives couldn’t have. This, for me, is true innovation.

(P.S: Please watch the youtube video links on the blog on the tsunami that hit Japan)

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