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Tohoku 5 years on
Series 4: Support for the residents of Kumamoto with learnings from Tohoku
Japan has the most advanced disaster preparation strategies in the world. Anti-seismic building regulations are stringent, every schoolchild knows what to do in an earthquake and advance warning systems are in place for tsunami and volcanic eruptions. Yet the series of quakes in Kyushu last month [April] still claimed 49 lives, injured 1,350 and caused the evacuation of 196,000 people.
In Japan, government bureaucrats have traditionally dictated top-down disaster relief and reconstruction policies, but after the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated Tohoku five years ago, this role began to open up to include charities, non-governmental organisations and the private sector. The Qatar Friendship Fund (QFF), with its $100 million donation from the emirate of Qatar, was one of many overseas organisations to dispense aid in Japan, and the lessons learned in Tohoku are now being put into practice in Kyushu.
One lesson that some fear is being overlooked in Kumamoto prefecture, where two major earthquakes struck on April 14 and 16, is a failure to address the specific needs of female evacuees and to engage them in decision-making. Akiko Domoto, a former governor of Chiba prefecture and head of the Japan Women’s Network for Disaster Risk Reduction (JWNDRR) argues that "women shouldn't just be passive participants, but involved in the management of evacuation shelters".
Some 90,000 people were still living in evacuation centres in Kumamoto two weeks after the first quake. According to Kyodo, on top of the 49 deaths from the earthquakes, 14 people are so far thought to have died “from complications stemming from the stress and fatigue of living as evacuees”.
As in Tohoku, most of the casualties in Kumamoto prefecture were elderly people living in old wooden houses, built before modern safety regulations came into force. The evacuees are now living in cold, uncomfortable shelters with little food and poor hygiene. The evidence from Tohoku shows that elderly people living in these conditions are extremely vulnerable. In Fukushima prefecture, more people have died from evacuation-related stress than were killed by the earthquake and tsunami.
Most evacuation centres are school buildings, meaning that 150,000 children in Kumamoto prefecture have been unable to attend school. The Kumamoto International Foundation, where Japanese disaster information is being translated into 10 different languages, is also housing foreign residents.
Supplies have been running low, due to damage to storage buildings and a shortage of distribution personnel, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun. The local government eventually [27 April] distributed tablet computers to evacuation centres to enable them to order supplies directly from an online database.
The twin earthquakes created unexpectedly high levels of demand at evacuation centres, which have been overwhelmed. An outbreak of norovirus was confirmed by the prime minister and one woman in her 50s died from deep-vein thrombosis after sleeping in her car for several nights. Doctors suspect as many as 97 more cases of the condition, known as “economy-class syndrome”, which is caused by blood clots created by cramped living conditions.
Thrombosis is a particular risk for elderly or overweight people, pregnant women and those with diabetes, high blood pressure or varicose veins. The Morioka hospital in Iwate prefecture, which treated evacuees after the Tohoku disaster using funding from the QFF, recommends these groups should wear compression socks, as should anyone with swollen legs or feet, especially those living in cars. Evacuees are encouraged to take exercise, drink plenty of water and go to the toilet regularly. However, women in particular have reduced their water intake in order to avoid using crowded, unhygienic bathrooms with no running water.
Women have also suffered from a shortage of sanitary products, and mothers, who in Japan take most of the responsibility for child-rearing, have struggled to get supplies for their babies, such as nappies and formula milk. During relief operations in Tohoku, the JWNDRR found that the needs of women had not been factored into advance planning. In makeshift hierarchies established in evacuation centres, women silently endured discrimination after being deliberately excluded from decision-making by “elderly men with outdated values”, said Ms Domoto.
She fears the same pattern is repeating itself in Kumamoto. “If evacuation shelters are run entirely on decisions made by men, we don’t know if women are in trouble”, she said. The JWNDRR has set up female leadership training centres in Tohoku with funding from the QFF, in order to address this problem.
Local media reports confirm that the needs of those other than able-bodied men have indeed been neglected in Kumamoto. Special evacuation facilities for the elderly and disabled were meant to house 1,700 people in the prefecture, but a failure to publicise their existence meant that, two weeks after the first quake, only 129 evacuees had been admitted.
The legacy of Japan’s repeated experience of natural disasters is that it is better prepared than almost any other nation on earth. The Kyushu bullet train was up and running within days. Yet structural challenges in Japanese society, such as the ageing population and a lack of organisation diversity, can impede the country’s responses. By listening to NGOs and charities, the government can give a voice to the vulnerable.
For more information:
Kumamoto International Foundation: http://www.kumamoto-if.or.jp/kcic/default_e.asp
Written by Lucy Alexander