Compound Disasters Require Compound Disaster Prevention
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
March 15, 2011
What is a "compound disaster?" In November, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale struck, just off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture in Japan. A few people escaped through gaps between the ruins. But who knew that 125 km offshore, at the epicenter, the quake would cause a tsunami. The tsunami would race toward land at 800 kph. Flood waters and debri would take the lives of many of those amid the ruins who survived the quake itself. The nightmare did not end there. Even more alarmingly, the 10 m high waves destroyed the Fukushima nuclear power plant reactor's core cooling system. This triggered a hydrogen gas explosion and a partial reactor core meltdown. Human lives were exposed to the threat of nuclear disaster.
Yesterday President Ma presided over a national security level disaster response conference. He characterized the earthquake and tsunami as a "compound disaster," or "complex emergency." One catastrophe was followed by another. The harmful effects were not merely additive, but geometric. They were the result of a multiplier effect. In the face of such "compound disasters," one needs "compound disaster awareness." The individual, the society, and the government, must think anew, by establishing new disaster prevention programs.
First, let us address emergency disaster response. The Fukushima nuclear disaster had a domino effect. One reactor after another contributed to the disaster. As many as 130,000 people became part of the "Great Fukushima Evacuation." The area of the evacuation zone was enlarged repeatedly. The number of people evacuated was increased repeatedly as well.
Contrast this with floods caused by Typhoon Morakot in 2009. The rainstorms caused landslides that destroyed Hsiaolin Village. This too was a "compound disaster." The county government failed to order an evacuation. In retrospect, this caused the deaths of 443 people. According to reports, the county chief at the time said any attempt to evacuate tens of thousands of people in such a short time would have been "absurd." It would however, be more accurate to say that absent foolproof disaster prevention measures, sitting and watching as the rain continued to fall was far more "absurd." The county government had no evacuation plans. That is why it characterized any attempt to evacuate people as "absurd." What were county officials doing, but inverting cause and effect?
Post disaster efforts must also be planned in advance. Water scarcity, starvation, food shortages, and a lack of electricity are to be expected. At this time of year, nightime temperatures in northeastern Japan drop below zero degrees Celsius. A lack of food and heat can be fatal. The impact of the disaster continues to spread. The disaster area is a base for the semiconductor and automobile industries. The quake disrupted production. Parts shortages worsened the impact of the disaster. Increased unemployment will be difficult to avoid. Such "compound disasters" involve simultaneous disasters. They extend the duration of the initial disaster. One disaster follows on the heels of another. The current disaster will severely test the Japanese government and people.
President Ma presided over a national security level disaster prevention and response conference. The imaginary topic was "What if this had happened on Taiwan?" Could we can handle it? This earthquake was 400 times as powerful as the 9/21 earthquake. Reconstruction following the 9/21 earthquake took over ten years. Suppose a magnitude 9.0 earthquake happened on Taiwan? Would we be able to cope?
The first response to "compound disasters," should be to adopt the proper attitude, and establish a fundamental response mechanism. Obtaining the equipment necessary to cope with disasters is important. But by comparison, it is secondary. For example, one might experience a record 1000 year flood due to heavy rains. One cannot build storm drains large enough to drain all water from our city streets. One cannot build levees high enough to prevent all rivers from flooding the adjacent land. Doing so would cost hundreds of billions of dollars more than we have. Besides, even if we spend huge sums of money, it may not help. Therefore the proper attitude should be disaster prevention rather than disaster response. One must go with the flow, and not swim against the tide.
Take landslides for example, It is far better to avoid building in high risk areas such as the mouths of valleys and at the foot of cliffs, rather than to build high walls or to drill deep footings. The key is land planning and the drafting of national land safety maps. One must thoroughly understand the nature of each plot of land in the event a disaster occurs. Only land which can be used, ought to be used. Short-sighted land use must be avoided. Taiwan is situated in the lower latitudes, close to the equator. Its climate poses increased risks. People on Taiwan must be aware.
Taiwan has experienced many natural disasters. Typhoon Herb, the 9/21 earthquake, Typhoon Nari, Typhoon Morakot. Response strategies have always been ad hoc. One year at a time. No further consideration has been given to learning from past mistakes, to minimize damage from the next disaster. Each time a disaster occurs, officials are overwhelmed. They merely react. They never anticipate. Their goal is merely to minimize the damage. They never think about preventing disasters from happening in the first place. Concepts such as "compound disasters" and "extreme weather" should inspire "compound disaster prevention." Officials must think comprehensively, and long-term. From formulating policy to holding drills, they must rethink disaster prevention.
The images which have appeared in the media over the past few days, provide considerable food for thought. In Japan, toddlers wear helmets in public places. For years Japanese kindergartens have had desks fitted with basic equipment. They have a place for protective headgear. When an earthquake strikes, toddlers don their helmets. Their ability to protect themselves keeps injuries to a minimum. Such tiny indicators provide considerable food for thought.