Lessons from Japan’s 3.11 Earthquake

photo credit: Warren Antiola via photopin cc
photo credit: Warren Antiola via photopin cc

Tokyo, 11 March 2011. An unforgettable day started as quietly as usual. It was the beginning of the longest day in my life. I had a toast with a cup of coffee and listened to BBC in the morning before getting in a crowded train to go to my office. It was perfectly an ordinal and peaceful day.

Just before 3pm, everything changed. My ordinal day suddenly came to the end. Darkness then started covering us.

I was sitting in a meeting room with my colleagues and suddenly got a big shake. Though we, Japanese, were used to earthquake, that was one of the biggest in my life. Well, probably not only for myself but everyone. We were not able to stand still and immediately hid ourselves under the table as we learned at an evacuation class of primary school. After the huge shake, we went out of the building, and saw a 100 metre tall building slightly swinging. Going back to the office, we saw Tsunami destroying a city and killing people on live TV. We could just do nothing for those people living there. Absolutely nothing at all.

Only thing that we could do was to secure ourselves and find a way to go home safely. As all the transports were shut down due to the earthquake, many of my colleagues slept in the office at that night. There were no foods stored at any shops. Even “convenience stores (24h shop)” were not convenient at all. Everything was sold out. Tokyo was completely land-locked and isolated. We found even Tokyo was totally vulnerable; no ways to go home and no ways to get food.

With some of my colleagues, I finally decided to go home on foot, 30 kilometre way, and got home at 2 am after 8 hours journey.

The following weeks were even harder for all of us to face the hell. We called it reality. We went to work as usual, and saw Fukushima nuclear power plants exploded on TV. Many embassies closed or moved to other cities and started helping their people leave Japan even by arranging flights.

“Only person who can help you is yourself.”

I still remember this word. Even good governments or companies cannot entirely help you in such devastating situations. They can only train you to practise to hide yourself under the table and to take sequent actions to evacuate; and rebuild the society and infrastructure strong before or after shocks.

Resilience has become a key word in international development since that day, at least among Japanese practitioners. I hope that this experience would be used to build resilient society even in different country contexts; particularly to help the most vulnerable people.

Poor people tend to be neglected in such occasions. Governments or others cannot do much for the people during shocks. Only thing they can do is to prepare for the shock and rebuild the society. That is not only about infrastructure but also social safety nets and social insurance.

At 2:46pm this afternoon, we commemorated anniversary of the March 11 tsunami and earthquake by a moment of silence. 15,884 people were killed. 2,636 people are still missing.

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