What Japan can teach us about global disaster preparedness

Road cracks caused by an earthquake is seen in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan: Japan's strong emphasis in disaster preparedness helped responses to the New Year's Day earthquake, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan.

Japan's strong emphasis in disaster preparedness helped responses to the New Year's Day earthquake, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. Image: via REUTERS

Naoko Tochibayashi
Communications Lead, Japan, World Economic Forum
Naoko Kutty
Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • An earthquake in Japan’s Noto Peninsula on 1 January 2024 led to 245 deaths, 76,144 damaged housing units and significant displacement; the severity of the aftermath was compounded by the region’s unique traits.
  • Japan’s experience with earthquakes and strengthened disaster preparedness have helped responses to Noto’s earthquake, including emergency transport routes and innovative relief efforts.
  • Enhanced disaster preparedness and cross-border cooperation across nations and sectors are critical as extreme weather events pose an urgent global risk due to climate change.

On New Year’s Day 2024, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck Ishikawa Prefecture’s Noto Peninsula on the northern coast of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. The death toll reached 245 and 76,144 housing units were damaged. Many residents were displaced amid the harsh winter cold, with approximately 15,000 seeking refuge in evacuation centres one month after the disaster.

Among them, about 5,000 people are living in “secondary evacuation centres” such as inns and hotels in areas away from their homes. The prolonged stay in evacuation centres has led to the spread of acute respiratory infections, including COVID-19 and influenza, with the number of infected individuals in Ishikawa Prefecture’s shelters surpassing 100 for consecutive days.

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Regional traits magnify damage

The region’s characteristics, such as its remote location within the peninsula, the social environment of depopulation and an ageing demographic, exacerbated vulnerability to earthquake damage.

The near-complete destruction of road networks due to landslides isolated numerous settlements along the coast and in the mountains of the Noto Peninsula. This disconnection led to challenges confirming the safety of individuals, conducting rescue operations and transporting supplies within the first 72 hours after the disaster, which is considered critical for the survival of victims.

The Noto region has seen a 17% decline in population over the past decade, while the heavily affected areas of Suzu City, Wajima City, Noto Town and Anamizu Town are expected to see their populations halve by 2050. Many households in these areas, inhabited chiefly by elderly residents due to depopulation, have been left in disrepair, worsening the damage. The housing earthquake resistance rate in Suzu is 51%, and 45% in Wajima, significantly lower than the national average of 87%.

Moreover, in depopulated areas, the restoration of impaired infrastructure takes time. The water supply network, in particular, suffered devastating damage during the earthquake. Over a month after the disaster, approximately 37,500 households in seven cities and towns in the prefecture still struggle to access water.

Learnings to aid rapid response

To help recovery, lessons from previous earthquakes and tsunamis can help adjust response and recovery plans, including flexibility in the face of unforeseen major damage to pursue swift reconstruction.

Since the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, Japan has been struck by numerous large-scale earthquakes, which has led to an enhanced focus on strengthening disaster preparedness and infrastructure development for earthquakes.

The introduction of “emergency transport routes,” which can restrict ordinary vehicle usage during disasters, was expanded nationwide following the Great Hanshin Earthquake. This initiative was taken in response to the disruption of major arterial roads during the 1995 earthquake, hindering the passage of emergency vehicles. The Noto earthquake also cut off many emergency transport routes, highlighting the urgent need nationwide for road reinforcement and securing alternative routes.

Furthermore, experts who point to delays in the initial response to the Noto earthquake have also said that in addition to geographical factors such as road disruptions, the inadequate functioning of systems to grasp the post-disaster situation was also a factor.

It emphasizes the need for each region to reconsider disaster countermeasures tailored to its geographical and environmental characteristics and for national, prefectural and municipal governments to strengthen cooperation focusing on disaster victims.

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Innovative disaster relief efforts

While challenges arise, innovative initiatives drive support for disaster victims as never before.

A seamless logistics system was initiated through collaboration between the self-defence forces and private sectors to overcome obstacles such as roadblocks and airport shutdowns. Self-defence forces used helicopters to transport relief supplies from urban areas and those arriving by sea, while logistics companies managed supplies for cargo handling and truck deliveries. Self-defence force members distributed supplies to the evacuation point where transport routes were closed.

Additionally, five domestic companies conducted initial disaster support activities using drones for search and rescue, disaster situation assessment and relief transportation.

Furthermore, the startup WOTA introduced a self-sustaining water circulation system in evacuation centres, allowing warm showers and handwashing even during water outages. This system, which combines cutting-edge filtration technology with water sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) analysis, enables the recycling of 100 litres of water approximately 100 times.

Enhancing global disaster preparedness

It has been one year since the devastating earthquake struck southern Turkey, claiming the lives of approximately 60,000 people. Today, the affected towns still bear the scars of the immense damage, with no clear timeline for rebuilding homes, leaving 690,000 displaced individuals still enduring life in temporary shelters.

The risks of natural disasters are not confined to specific cities, regions or countries. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024 warns that extreme weather events are the greatest risk facing the world in the next decade. With the exacerbation and increased frequency of natural disasters due to climate change, there is an urgent need for strengthened global measures to address them.

The High-Level Meeting on the Midterm Review of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, held in May last year, emphasized the necessity of expanding disaster preparedness investment and efficiently managing disaster risks caused by climate change.

To implement more comprehensive and resilient disaster preparedness strategies, integrating lessons learned from various disasters, it will be necessary for the world to align its efforts and strengthen cooperation across nations among governmental, private and civil society sectors.

Concurrently, it is crucial to leverage evolving technologies such as AI and drones to their fullest potential in disaster prevention, crisis management, disaster situation assessment and victim assistance.

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