Ninth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

  • 2020•03•10     Tohoku, Japan

    Collapsed building in Onagawa, tilted to the side by the force of tsunami waves. © UNU-EHS / Joerg Szarzynski

    Tragic event sparks a promising collaboration to reduce disaster risk

    by Paola Fontanella Pisa and Joerg Szarzynski

    Nine years ago today, the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami hit the East Coast of Japan’s Tohoku region, heavily impacting the Japanese prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima. On Friday 11th March 2011, at 02:46 PM JST time a magnitude 9.0 undersea earthquake generated tsunami waves with heights reaching up to 40 meters, washing away entire villages and towns, and claiming the lives of thousands of people. The earthquake also led to a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Power Plant.

    This event has been the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan. Even in a highly developed country like Japan, and in an area with a long history of dealing with both earthquakes and tsunamis, it revealed the limits of existing early warning systems and emergency response interventions in the face of such a low-frequency-high-impact event. Although the advanced quake-resistant buildings in the area were able to prevent a great number of losses from the tremors themselves, the subsequent tsunami took thousands of lives.

    However, probably more than any other disaster, the drastic long-term socio-economic consequences of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, particularly in the Fukushima region, have tremendously boosted the innovation, scientific research and technological development endeavours in Japan. Intrinsically motivated by the need to advance research on improving communities’ resilience towards such catastrophic hazards, in combination with the adverse impact of climate change effects, Tohoku University in Sendai, for instance, took large efforts to add to its scientific portfolio. The university founded the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS), which conducts world-leading research on earthquake and tsunami disaster science and disaster mitigation. In addition, Tohoku University developed the International Joint Graduate Program in Resilience and Safety Studies. The graduate programme aims to provide world class education to the research leaders of tomorrow. “Disaster and safety sciences” was named as a key cluster of international research, and the educational objective is to develop internationally minded researchers, focusing on societal resilience and human security.

    Former disaster management center in Minamisanriku, kept as a memorial site of the 2011 tsunami         © UNU-EHS / Joerg Szarzynski

    At the same time, the post-disaster situation also fostered the collaboration between Tohoku University and UNU-EHS. On the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, UNU-EHS organized a scientific workshop together with Tohoku University. This event provided researchers with a unique forum to explore and share the lessons learned following the earthquake and tsunami.

    This initial event paved the way for the development of additional joint activities between the two institutes through scientific events and the development of capacity on addressing human security and vulnerabilities in disaster areas. A milestone of this collaboration was the joint participation in the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) that took place in Sendai, Japan in 2015, and that led to the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) by the world community.

    The cooperation continues to this day. Just in January 2020, a delegation from UNU-EHS visited Tohoku University to engage with different faculties and further explore opportunities for collaboration, for instance joint research, capacity building, workshops or student/staff exchanges. The delegation also had a chance to host a plenary lecture at Tohoku University’s Aobayama Campus and addressed topics such as emergency response preparedness and managing risk in the 21st century.

    Through international collaboration and knowledge exchange, the partners hope to better understand risks, increase preparedness, and improve societal resilience to be better prepared for future disasters.

    Tsunami damages at Okawa Elementary School. © UNU-EHS / Joerg Szarzynski