Six weeks ago the devastating force of mother nature reminded us again how things can change in a matter of a few minutes. For the first time we were able to watch live images of the destructive power of tsunamis as they struck the coast of Japan following a massive 9.0 earthquake. I have spent most of my time since March 11th, working on supporting the NetHopemember organizations active in Japan.

It now appears that over 27,000 people died as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami that followed. Over 500,000 people were affected and close to 70,000 families lost their homes. Many towns and villages along the coast were totally wiped out.

But instead of focusing in this blog post on the aftermath of the disaster then I rather want to focus on what didn’t happen because of how Japan has invested in disaster risk reduction activities or what is often called emergency preparedness.

It is my firm believe that if this disaster had struck any other country than Japan then we would have seen the number of deaths multiply by a factor of 5-10. Ever since the big Kobe earthquake in 1995, the Japanese have spent lot of effort on disaster risk reduction activities. This includes systems for monitoring earthquakes and tsunamis. This includes systems for warning about impeding earthquakes and tsunamis. It includes running training and awareness programs for citizens.

Japan has a very extensive network of earthquake detectors. These monitor both the S and P waves (see this Wikipedia article for a great overview of how the difference between those two waves can be used in early warning). When a strong earthquake is detected through these monitors then a public warning is issued. I got to experience this first hand when visiting Japan at the start of April when a series of 6.5-7.1 aftershocks struck within a 48 hour period. In one case I was in a meeting on the 31st floor of a building an through the loudspeakers we were told a strong earthquake had been detected and would arrive in 10-15 seconds. About 7 seconds later we could feel the tremor. This of course works best when the earthquake strikes at a bit of distance, but there are also examples, at least from Taiwan that I know of where this is used to automatically slow down high speed trains and open up elevator doors.

But more importantly on March 11th was the early warning and training on the potential of tsunamis. Japan being a country that “frequently” gets struck by tsunamis has developed a very good system of monitoring ocean movements, but also of warning people. Regular evacuation drills are done in coastal areas and people are educated on the dangers of tsunamis. It was especially this effort that saved tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives on March 11th.

It has often been said that a dollar spent on preparedness saves at least six dollars in response costs. With the March 11th earthquake being the most costly disaster ever worldwide, with at last $300 billions in material damage according to government estimates, that figure might easily have risen substantially and caused even greater effects on the overall world economy.

It is therefore important for donors and governments around the world to learn a lesson from the people of Japan. Even though it might sometime be difficult to justify spending money on preparedness it is at times like these that we are reminded of its value. Lets make strategic decisions to move in that direction before the images of the devastation in Japan are too easily forgotten.

On May 10th-13th, 2500 representatives of national governments, regional and international organizations, civil society and non-profit organizations come together for the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. It is my challenge to those showing up there, including myself, that we put our money and action where our mouth is and not just talk about preparedness but actually start working full-force on preparedness activities that will pay off multiple times when the next disasters strike.

Published April 28th 2011 at DisasterExpert