UNU-ISP events explore human consequences of natural disasters

  • 2012•03•03     Tokyo

    Prof. Elaine Enarson, Founding member Gender and Disaster Network. Photo: S.Schmidt/UNU

    Almost a year after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, thousands of people are still struggling to rebuild their lives and communities. On 20–22 February 2012, a research project of the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP) brought together leading international experts to look at the human consequences of the 11 March disasters in comparison to other major natural disasters, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.


    An intensive two-day research workshop at UNU headquarters and Waseda University considered how a “human security” approach can help us understand and respond to such catastrophes. This concept, which emerged in a 1994 report by UNDP, recognizes that the most pressing threats to individuals do not come from interstate war, but from everyday emergencies such as famine, disease, displacement, civil conflict and natural disasters.

    Human security is meant to entail “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want”— and create a situation in which people can live their lives with dignity. In its role as a think tank for the UN system, UNU has made important contributions to the development of the concept, which this research project continues by focusing on the growing global problem of natural disasters.

    Invited scholars and practitioners from Japan and abroad explored how a human security approach can be applied to dealing with the human element in “natural” disasters,including  the role different actors—such as the government, military and civil society—should play in responding, problems with the displacement of people, the way existing vulnerabilities are deepened, and the wide range of public health problems that arise. The workshop concluded that the human security approach has significant potential, in particular as a way of better identifying and protecting vulnerable groups (including the elderly, women, children, the disabled, and those with chronic diseases).

    Public forum

    On 22 February, a forum at UNU Headquarters — “11 March in Context: Human Security Perspectives” — shared and discussed these findings with the public. A panel of expert participants considered what lessons can be taken from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, as well as other recent “mega-disasters” such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

    Yukie Osa (Association for Aid and Relief, Japan) observed that after 11 March, Japan had failed to draw upon its considerable experience of overseas disaster relief, and that NGOs were trying to apply international standards to the relief operations.

    Elaine Enarson (Gender and Disaster Network) emphasized that while looking at disasters through a gender lens can reveal vulnerabilities, it also highlights the “great strengths that women and men bring differently to disasters”.

    Kaoruko Seki (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) noted that in responding to disasters, the key challenge for the international community is to empower people to use local knowledge and coping mechanisms, while filling gaps in local responses.

    Recalling her experience as a medical responder in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Emily Ying Yang Chan (CERT–CUHK–Oxford University Centre for Disaster and Medical Humanitarian Response) drew attention to those with underlying chronic conditions as a vulnerable group that is often neglected in disasters.

    An interactive discussion with the audience highlighted that, rather than seeing people as passive victims of disasters, we should instead seeks to empower them to play an active role in disaster prevention, response and rebuilding.

    These workshop and forum were part of the UNU-ISP research project Human Security and Natural Disasters, in partnership with the Waseda University School of International Liberal Studies and the RMIT Global Cities Research Institute, and made possible by the generous support of the Japan Foundation. The project outputs will include an edited academic book, to be published in 2013.