Disaster Risk Gets a Broad Look at Sendai Meeting

Lessons learned. A Japanese Navy helicopter carries food to Sendai, Japan, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. A meeting this week in Sendai is highlighting how governments can better prepare for such disasters.

United States Navy/Wikimedia

Global and national agencies spend too much time planning how to respond to disasters and not enough time thinking about how to reduce the risks before calamity strikes, say experts attending an international meeting on the topic that opened today in Sendai, Japan. The "Sendai Dialogue," part of the 2012 International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group Annual Meetings in Japan, is designed to highlight lessons learned from the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami that caused a human and nuclear disaster.

"Managing disaster risk is not the same as disaster management," Prashant, a disaster reduction and recovery expert at the World Bank's Global Facility who uses one name, said at a preconference briefing last week. Managing risk involves making upfront investments in resistant infrastructure, urban planning, and training, he explained; disaster management is what comes after a calamity. "The entire national and international machinery is geared toward response. We need to invest more in preparation to manage the risk that can be managed and prepare for the residual risk," he said.

To share insights gained from disasters in Japan and elsewhere, World Bank officials have released " Knowledge Notes," a report which highlights examples of both good and bad disaster planning. One section explains how advance planning and training helped Kamaishi, a city of more than 40,000 that was hit heavily by the tsunami, protect the nearly 3000 students who were in school that day, despite extensive loss of life throughout the town. On the other hand, Japan's disaster made it clear that plans for evacuating the elderly and disabled fell short. Also, the designers of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant focused on earthquake risk while overlooking the threat from a tsunami, the report notes.

The meeting should help emphasize that disaster risk management should be a priority in development planning, says Kazushige Taniguchi, a former official of Japan's Ministry of Finance who is now a special representative at the World Bank. Disaster planning meetings were typically aimed at construction and response officials, Taniguchi says. The Sendai Dialogue is including ministers of finance and others responsible for economic growth. "We need to convince them disaster risk management is good for long-term development," Taniguchi says.

Prashant and Taniguchi hope that the dialog and the new report will help forge a global consensus on advancing disaster risk management as a priority in development plans.