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Sanny Jegillos: Kyushu must learn from recent quake

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Japan's Kyushu region was apparently not very well prepared.   © Kyodo

Some are calling it a "seismic epidemic."

     A recent series of powerful earthquakes from Japan to Ecuador, Myanmar to Indonesia, have rattled populations across the globe.

     While each inflicted trauma on local populations, the most devastating in terms of the loss of life was on April 16 in Ecuador, where latest reports put the death toll at more than 400, according to the BBC. But while Ecuador has the highest casualty rate of the recent wave of quakes, the most striking example is Japan, a country that many expect to be better prepared than most for earthquakes.

     The two big earthquakes that hit Kyushu on April 14 and 16 claimed at least 42 lives. The second quake's 7.3-magnitude registered highest in the Japanese intensity scale in this region.

     While the devastation in Ecuador was compounded by inadequate levels of preparedness, the scale and breadth of destruction and disruption in Kyushu took many by surprise.

     Besides the death toll, many of Kyushu's businesses are shut down. Major corporations took a hit. A Sony plant that produces image sensors for smartphone makers has been shuttered, until it can be assessed for damage.

     And operations at major car manufacturers Toyota and Nissan were disrupted, with their factories in Kyushu being forced to halt car production.

     Hundreds of thousands of people in and around Kumamoto are still without gas, water and electricity, and tens of thousands are still in shelters.

     For a nation that has grappled with and learned to live with the ever-present threat of earthquakes it seems surprising. It should not be.

LESSONS NOT LEARNED   While the rest of Japan has diligently worked to prepare for disasters -- especially since the Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE) of 2011 -- Kyushu has yet to apply the lessons learned.   

     Until now, Kyushu had not experienced an earthquake of such high intensity.

     Preparedness is generally based on historical experiences, and the Tohoku region in northern Honshu, Japan's main island, with a history of tsunamis had put into place various precautions and countermeasures. Yet, the 2011 tsunami exceeded every measure: magnitude, height, and runoff inland of tsunami waves.

     If there was one overarching lesson from 2011, it is that one cannot prepare adequately by basing knowledge on science and history alone. It naturally follows that we must be better prepared and anticipate a quake that might be of far higher intensity than we could possibly expect. It also showed that we cannot wait for disasters to strike, and retroactively prepare a response.

     In Kyushu, the Shinkansen, or bullet train, was not halted when the quake struck, causing a derailment. The chances of that happening in the Tohoku region are unlikely because there is a system that automatically halts a train, on the detection of earthquake tremors.  

     In Kyushu, there is limited insurance coverage for earthquake damage to households, and building codes are not as stringent as those in other regions of Japan. For instance the collapse of a hospital or a dam would necessitate massive evacuation. Kyushu is not prepared for this.

     What this means for Japan and other earthquake-prone countries is that they cannot afford to base their preparedness on a history of disasters.

     While it is hard to predict earthquakes, it is not so hard to prepare for them, so that damage and loss of life is limited. There are several measures that can be taken.  

     One of the first and most basic things is to better educate people about the potential impact of and responses to a large earthquake.

     All development planning should be risk-informed. For instance, all critical infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, as well as cultural heritage sites that are visitor destinations need to be retrofitted and reinforced to strengthen structures. In Kyushu, such infrastructure suffered considerable damage.

     The worst-case scenario in Kyushu could have been a dam collapse and nuclear radiation leaks from power plants that supply energy to local populations. If that had happened, the regions' most critical needs would not have been met, compounding the impact of the disaster.

     In the current scenario, local officials seemed unprepared for the situation that unfolded. In the event of a worst-case scenario, the disaster would have reached catastrophic proportions.

     Usually there is no need for mass evacuation during a major earthquake, people simply go to evacuation centers or take refuge in open areas.

     In Kyushu, due to lack of confidence in the structural integrity of the dam, a mass evacuation was carried out.  

     In any other country, a mass evacuation would not be so unusual, a death toll of 42 would be a small number. Tohoku suffered damage on a vast scale and a death toll of at least 22,000. In Kyushu however, the tally of death and damages is significant because Japan is a role model for the world when it comes to earthquake preparedness. 

     Simply put, the lesson of Kyushu is that Japan needs to invest more in earthquake research and risk assessment, and timely emergency management measures -- not just in the areas most vulnerable but in all regions where quakes are a possibility, no matter how remote.

     One can expect Japan to take these and further measures, given the country's meticulous attention to safety. The rest of the world's earthquake-prone nations would do well to follow Japan's lead and learn also from Kyushu.

Sanny Ramos Jegillos is senior adviser on disaster risk reduction at the Bureau of Policy and Programme Support, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub.

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