What lessons can we learn from Japan’s disasters?

damaged homes after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan

Precisely one year after Japan’s disaster trifecta – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear reactor meltdown – York emergency management expert Ali Asgary and his team will bring together government officials, emergency responders, engineers, health scientists, an economist, a corporate ethicist and journalists who bore witness in one way or another, and he will ask: What were the lessons learned?

One lesson already stands out – local emergency response and recovery plans need to be revised. The triple whammy that took Japan by surprise underscored the need to plan far beyond the typical disaster scenarios. It brought not only physical destruction, but affected social and economic stability on a local, national and global scale. 

damaged homes after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan

Ofunato, Japan, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Wikimedia Commons: US Navy photo by Matthew M. Bradley

“This event has challenged our basic assumptions about dealing with large risks and hazards,” says Asgary, director of York’s Disaster & Emergency Management Program.

On March 9, Asgary’s team is hosting a seminar, Japan’s Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of March 2011: Lessons Learnt.

In the past, he writes, the lessons related to emergency management and crisis response may have been overemphasized at the expense of those lessons related to policies and strategic thinking related to risk reduction. So he has invited eyewitnesses – journalists, Red Cross experts, government officials – to share their on-the-ground experiences and analysts – an economist and an expert in corporate social responsibility – to talk about the broader implications of the Japan disaster on international economy, trade and ethical corporate behaviour.

Sessions begin at 9am in the Harry Crowe Room, 109 Atkinson Building. Speakers will talk about the impact of the disaster on infrastructure, about business ethics issues arising from it, about Canada’s response, CBC’s reporting and lessons for Canada.

“Japan did not expect this worst-case scenario,” says Asgary. Most industrial facilities along Japan’s east coast were not planned for earthquakes with a magnitude of nine. Even when they did, their plans rarely factored in a tsunami or a nuclear meltdown or both.

Disasters, although environmentally and socially devastating, can present opportunities for learning and improving, notes Asgary, who led a similar “lessons learnt” seminar following the Haiti earthquake.

“We in Canada can learn from Japan,” says Asgary. In fact, he says, Canadians wasted no time rethinking disaster plans, he says. And no wonder – British Columbia’s coast is as vulnerable as Japan to earthquakes and tsunamis that could as easily devastate populated areas and flatten an industrial economy.

Many ethical questions have arisen out of this disaster, suggests Asgary. “I think one question is, what is ethical about putting a power plant in a hazardous area. Another is, to what level did businesses respond to their own employees and help them?” He’s invited Mark Schwartz, a law, governance and ethics professor in York’s School of Administrative Studies,  to address these questions.

Ali AsgaryAli Asgary

At the end of the day, they will hold a freewheeling discussion and try to synthesize lessons learned about the Japan disaster, says Asgary. For him, this seminar is a chance to network, share information and ideas, and stimulate out-of-the-box, solution-focused thinking among stakeholders. Their engagement and long-term participation is vital if more robust and resilient local, municipal, provincial, regional and global systems are to be achieved, he argues.

Presentations and the final discussion will be recorded and posted online. And the lessons learned will be published, says Asgary.

“Eventually, we want to create a network, plus a centre for disaster lessons,” he says.

To register and for more information about speakers, visit http://disasterlessons.info.yorku.ca or e-mail asgary@yorku.ca.