One year ago this Sunday, unforgettable images began to emerge from Japan. Dirty grey waves swept through coastal towns, turning ordered streets into rivers of rubble. Terrified people watched from high ground, as their homes were carried away. An earthquake of a 9.0 magnitude had struck the Tohoku region of north-eastern Japan, causing a tsunami with waves as tall as a 16-storey building to inundate an area of 500 square kilometres. The disaster killed nearly 20,000 people, destroyed more than 100,000 buildings and prompted a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant which led to the evacuation of 60,000 people, and cost 17 trillion yen (US$220 billion) in direct damages.

A tragedy on this scale may be impossible to predict, but there are ways of strengthening resilience to natural disasters. In the past, earthquakes have prompted Japan to adopt certain approaches to mitigating risk: the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, which had a death toll of 105,000, led the country to introduce anti-fire town-planning codes and create the first earthquake resistance regulations. Similarly, after the Hanshin Awaji earthquake of 1995, a crisis centre was established in the Prime Minister’s residence and laws were revised to speed up emergency responses.

Lessons are being gleaned from last year’s disaster. While a national enquiry is still underway, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2012 report conveys what risk experts think can  be learned from the complex, far-reaching crisis in Japan. The findings, presented in a dedicated chapter, include the following points:

  • Advancing into the information space. The Japanese authorities were criticized for not communicating quickly or clearly enough about the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Only a decade ago, the media typically expected institutions to issue statements within 24 hours of a crisis. With social media platforms like Twitter spreading information – and misinformation – at breakneck speed, authorities have a matter of minutes to get their message across. Trust in the integrity of leaders is undermined when they keep silent until all their facts are collated. It would be better for them to clarify quickly, honestly and clearly what is known and what is not.
  • The value of adaptive leadership. Within four days of the earthquake, a Japanese convenience store chain, Lawson, had resumed 80% of its business, allowing it to provide vital supplies. The company had put a “networked managerial structure” in place following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which empowered employees across the organization to take decisions and coordinate  with one another. This was judged to be more valuable than employing teams of specialised risk managers. On a practical level, branch offices were stocked with emergency goods and bicycles, which are often the only feasible means to get around in the aftermath of an earthquake. Such decentralized organizations are sometimes likened to starfish: able to regenerate severed limbs. Although the starfish model can prove resilient, the importance of a central agency with an overview of the situation should not be underestimated.
  • Redundancy can boost resilience in complex systems. When car manufacturers in Detroit, Michigan first found out about the Japanese tsunami, most would not have expected it to affect them personally. However, car production temporarily ground to a halt because manufacturers could no longer get hold of a crucial microcontroller chip, produced in a factory north of Tokyo hit by the disaster. The danger is that such disruptions can be quickly forgotten when companies revert to the principles of lean business models, which imply that putting some slack – or redundancy – into supply chains is a waste of resources. On the other hand, back at the site of the disaster, the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport’s local liaison office had the flexibility to mobilize trained personnel and necessary resources effectively. Employees played a crucial role alongside the US military, Japanese Self-Defense Force and other external aid providers in accelerating rescue efforts, by removing tsunami debris from an airport runway and allowing relief planes to land.

You can read the Global Risks 2012 report in full here

Author: Lee Howell is Managing Director, Head of Centre for Global Events and Risk Response Network at the World Economic Forum

Pictured: Schoolchildren take shelter underneath their desks during a disaster drill named “Shakeout Tokyo” at Izumi elementary school in Tokyo March 9, 2012, ahead of the one-year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward residents, commuters, office workers and schoolchildren held a mass disaster drill on Friday in preparation for the next big earthquake. REUTERS/Issei Kato