Institutions to prepare for disasters

Alma Maria O. Salvador

Posted on March 13, 2012

On March 11 at 2:46 p.m. last year, a mega-earthquake with a magnitude of 8.9 in the Richter scale, shook the seismically active Tohuku northeast region of Japan. Officially known as the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Tohuku earthquake disaster has caught well-prepared and disaster-resilient Japan "off guard."

The Tohuku quake has confirmed the unthinkable idea that human cognition to predict and prepare for disasters is imperfect. University of Tokyo Professor Kenji Satake recognized this when he referred to the quake as an "unforecasted earthquake". Nature writer David Cyranoski considered the "three-meter-plus tsunami" prediction of the Japan Meteorological Agency on the day of the quake as a "mistaken forecast" that overestimated the strength of the 25-foot sea walls’ capability to defend the 30-foot-tall tsunami waves that swept off coastal communities of inland Sendai City.

Despite these limitations, Japan is still looked upon as the world’s most prepared society. Japan’s culture of disaster preparedness is a product of deliberate processes of changing institutions driven mainly by the experience of violence wrought by two catastrophic earthquakes: The September 1, 1923 Great Kanto earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 and the 1995 Kobe (Hanshin-Awaji) earthquake of 7.2 magnitude have reportedly claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and properties. Nobel Memorial Prize winner for Economics Douglass C.North defines institutions as "the structure that humans impose on human interaction and therefore define the incentives that determine the choices that individuals make that shape the performance of societies." According to North, institutions are made up of rules which are formal and norms of behavior which are informal. Both rules and norms have their own enforcement mechanisms. Institutional and normative change take place when new legislation is introduced. However, normative change takes place incrementally and subconsciously. The process of normative change occurs through "norm internalization" which constructivist international relations scholars Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink refer to as a process of imbibing and habituating codes of "ought-ness" of behavior.

In Japan, the state has played a major role in building formal rules that institutionalized the legal framework for disaster risk reduction. Rules in place have been constantly revisited, amended and enforced. Symbols have been introduced to rally support for common rules, while norms on mutual aid and collective action strengthen the enforcement of rules.

Each earthquake in Japan historically served as a reference point for deepening earthquake science and disaster research. Severe destruction of school buildings due to the 1923 Kanto earthquake paved the way for revising rules of construction. University of Hong Kong professor Dr. Janet Borland author of "Lessons from history for today and tomorrow: Disaster prevention and education in Japanese schools following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake" traced how lessons learned from the catastrophic 1923 earthquake were utilized to improve the structure of school buildings. Today, a national subsidy system and a set of guidelines supported by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology promote the making of earthquake-proof school buildings.

Lessons from the 1995 Kobe earthquake have been instrumental to the development of the "flexible tower" technology that allows tall structures to yield to earth’s shaking. It was the Kobe disaster which reportedly incurred more than 6,000 deaths and 100,000 destroyed buildings that influenced the revision of existing building rules and the formulation of more stringent regulatory regime in construction. Asia Disaster Reduction Center (Japan) Visiting Researcher Maiya Kadel identified four key regulations on earthquake preparedness that the Kobe disaster generated: Earthquake Disaster Countermeasures, the Promotion of Earthquake Proof Retrofit of buildings, an Amendment of the Disasters Countermeasures Basic Act and Amendment on Act of Special Measures for Large Scale Earthquakes. These and other rules have prepared Japan until the colossal Tohuku earthquake. On that day, Martin Fackler of the New York Times wrote that "...waves as high as 30 feet rushed onto shore, whisking away cars and carrying blazing buildings toward factories, fields and highways." This reality according to New York Times writer, Hiroko Tacuchi, has raised new questions about the wisdom of constructing lightweight wooden houses in coastal areas and of building on land reclaimed areas. A lot of dissertation writing services prefer to put profit over the quality.

The rules-based approach to disaster preparedness has been strengthened by a regime that promotes the value of fostering concern for others. This was in part a reaction to what was perceived to be an individualistic public response to the 1923 quake crisis. Dr. Borland found that "so many people cared only about saving their own lives and belongings, they did not unite to help each other or join forces to extinguish the fires." Eighty-eight years thereafter, reports on the Tohuku earthquake highlight how collective concern for others has virtually eliminated cases of looting and fighting.

Political leadership has in general been the key to the mobilization of whole populations towards disaster preparedness. A symbolic commemoration of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake takes place every September 1 when the entire nation including the Prime Minister take part in Disaster Prevention Day. Dr. Borland described how kindergarten children have been repeatedly trained to duck and cover, to map and locate exit and evacuation sites and use this knowledge as a means for internalizing the values of self-help and "calm-mindedness" which serve as bases for learning about mutual aid.

At the aftermath of the Tohuku earthquake, an ABCnews.com reporter videotaped what she thought was a "master class in enduring crisis from the Japanese people." The video showed people in a graduation ceremony collectively removing rubles from a fallen ceiling; a man who offered the lady reporter food when he could have kept it for himself; families who calmly queued for three hours to collect rationed food and people who voluntarily suspended use of electricity. These were all reflective of the value of "considering community when you consider yourself," a norm that underpins rules on preparedness.

Disaster-prone Philippines could do much to learn from this story of building institutions that secure, unite and prepare a country from disastrous environmental change.

Alma Maria O. Salvador is the department chair of the Ateneo de Manila University Department of Political Science. She is also the co-convener of the Working Group for Security Sector Reform and Development.