UNU-EHS researchers visit Japan’s tsunami-affected areas

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  • 2012•02•21     Sendai

    Prof. Dr. Jakob Rhyner (UNU Vice Rector in Europe and Director of the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) in Germany) and Dr. Joern Birkmann (UNU-EHS Academic Officer) had been scheduled to visit Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, in summer 2011. The trip was to have been a return visit to strengthen relations between the Human Security Program of Tohoku University and the UNU-EHS Section on Vulnerability Assessment, Risk Management & Adaptive Planning, following a visit by Prof. Dinil Pushpalal from Tohoku University to UNU-EHS in February 2011 regarding a proposed joint master’s degree programme between the two institutions.

    The magnitude 9 earthquake and resulting tsunami of 11 March, however, caused the Bonn researchers to postpone their travel to Japan until the beginning of February 2012. In addition to meeting with their colleagues in Sendai, they received a first-hand impression of the tsunami-affected areas more than 10 months after the disaster.

    A symposium on human security in disasters

    The day before the field visit, Tohoku University hosted a “Joint Symposium on Human Security in Disasters”. Vice Rector Rhyner spoke on the importance of worldwide collaborations when doing research on risk management and human security, while Prof. Birkmann′s presentation focused on risk, vulnerability and development pathways in regards to adaptive urban governance, showcasing projects from tsunami-affected areas in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

    In the weeks after 11 March 2011, researchers from Tohoku University immediately started on-the-ground research in the tsunami-affected areas of Japan. At the symposium, Oscar A. Gomez from Colombia and Japanese researcher Nina Takashino focused on “The Role of Grocery Stores” after the triple disaster and evaluated how smaller businesses coped with the situation. Prof. Takashino′s findings showed that especially Sendai family businesses could act quickly and reopen their stores due their small size. The inaccessibility to the central market and the lack of gasoline were problematic for running grocery stores.

    “The incident in Fukushima forced many people to search for shelter and stay inside, but two weeks later issues about food contamination arose”, said Prof. Gomez. On the question of the role played by the mass media, in making people aware of where to buy safe food products, he mentioned “Twitter messages — but those pointed mainly towards bigger supermarkets where food sold out fast. Grocery stores were rather unfamiliar with this communication tool, and therefore sat on their stocks despite uncritical quality”.

    Future research interests

    Further research in Japan will cover the cascading effects of natural disasters in industrialized nations and societal trust in technical systems. “We also need to look at the role of corporations when rebuilding the affected areas”, said Prof. Birkmann.

    In the afternoon panel session, symposium participants discussed experiences in resilient rebuilding in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, including religious aspects of coping with natural disasters and the role democracy can play in case of a natural hazard.

    “In the immediate aftermath of the event, there is no time for democracy”, said Prof. Rhyner, “but in the preparation phase before a disaster, democracy can play a crucial role in developing resilient structures”. Nevertheless, recent examples like “Hurricane Katrina revealed that a state like Cuba was better prepared than a democracy like the US”, noted Prof. Birkmann.

    On the second day of their visit, Profs. Rhyner and Birkmann took a field trip to locations around Sendai affected by the tsunami, as documented in the audio slideshow above.

    UNU-EHS hopes to develop broader and more intense connections with Tohoku University to establish course programmes and research projects focusing on human security and vulnerabilities in disaster areas.