The scale of the devastation in Japan is hard to comprehend. Early estimates suggest that more than 10,000 people may have died. Thousands more are injured and more than half a million are sheltering in evacuation centres. Coastal villages and cities have been wiped off the map by the tsunami that struck Japan’s north-east. As I write this, Japan’s government continues to deal with the ongoing nuclear emergency at Fukushima. Reconstruction costs are likely to top $100bn.
In such circumstances, the immediate priority remains reaching the devastated towns and saving lives. Search-and-rescue teams from all over the world have joined their Japanese colleagues in a heroic effort to locate survivors. The needs of some 550,000 people in evacuation centres will also need to be addressed quickly – they’ll need regular supplies of food, water and heating (temperatures are near freezing in this part of Japan). Children who have suffered unimaginable psychological trauma will also need us. That’s why Save the Children Japan is setting up safe places where children can begin to recover.
In the face of such catastrophe, the response of the Japanese people has been an inspiring one. The Japanese government too has brought strong leadership to the relief effort, requesting and accepting international assistance and coordinating the many international teams, agencies and private sector organisations who are responding in the disaster zone.
This rapid response will save lives. In a country credited with being ‘best on the planet ‘ in their readiness for disaster, preparedness planning and disaster risk reduction efforts doubtlessly saved the lives of thousands of people. Japan’s building codes are among the most rigorous in the world for being earthquake safe. With most big cities lying on active faultlines, many countries and local authorities will need to learn the lessons of Japan’s exacting standards. As the earthquake in Haiti showed, where people live in slums rather than expertly-designed buildings, the death toll is likely to be far greater.
There are more encouraging signs that lessons were learned from the 2004 Tsunami. It was feared a deadly tsunami would lead to massive destruction across the Pacific – happily this didn’t materialise. Nevertheless, early-warning mechanisms quickly kicked in and evacuations took place in around 50 countries and territories across the region. To date, only one casualty has been reported outside Japan.
It’s hard to strike a positive note in light of such destruction, but the response of the international community in Japan’s hour of need has been heartening. Offers of help from countries as diverse as Britain, Afghanistan and the Maldives should remind us that humanitarian assistance isn’t just a matter of rich countries helping poor countries, but of human to human solidarity.