Japan: Post-earthquake coordination saves lives

20 Mar 2012

Ishinomaki Japanese Red Cross hospital. The hospitals corridors are lined with beds. Most of the seriously ill are the elderly with hypothermia and respiratory infections. Credit: IFRC
The coordinated response to the Great East Japan Earthquake has lessons for the future and the region.

On 11 March 2011, Japan experienced one of the worst natural disasters in its history. The Great East Japan Earthquake claimed nearly 16,000 lives and destroyed some 128,000 homes and buildings. More than 3,200 people are still missing. Prior to the one-year anniversary commemorations, the Head of the OCHA Kobe office, Masaki Watabe, visited the fishing town of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture to see first-hand how coordination saves lives.


“Coordination saves lives” is a vital message for humanitarian work, but what does it mean in practice in an emergency situation? For OCHA, coordination means bringing hundreds of different groups and partners together around common objectives, often in very difficult conditions. My recent visit to the earthquake-hit town of Ishinomaki in northern Japan brought this home to me in a new way. The coordination there after the disaster struck last year has many lessons for the future and for the region.

First, there was coordination on an international scale. More than 160 countries and 43 international organizations offered assistance to Japan. Nearly 30 international search-and-rescue teams responded, and relief goods were received from 63 countries. OCHA’s Financial Tracking Service shows that Japan received at least US$722 million from all over the world, mostly in the form of individual donations.

In the hours following the disaster, a joint OCHA/UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team was dispatched to help the Government’s efforts. The UNDAC team provided a unique humanitarian overview of the crisis with situation reports and information management. The team also gave coordination advice to the Government on incoming humanitarian assistance.

But just as important as this international coordination was the coordination on the ground. This was led by the Ishinomaki Disaster Recovery Assistance Council. The Council coordinates non- governmental organization (NGO) activities, and it has a cluster-like structure through which organizations involved in specific sectors talk to each other. From the very first days after the disaster, this approach saved lives.

While Japan’s Self-Defence Force focused on food distribution in the evacuation centres, hundreds of volunteers reached thousands of people who were still in their homes. These people could not feed themselves because there was no food for sale, and there was no electricity to cook with. Aid groups worked together, making sure that that no one went without. This coordination was invaluable for people who survived the earthquake, but who were waiting for food and essential help.

Another key lesson concerned the importance of volunteers in saving lives, protecting others from further suffering, and restoring dignity and normality. More than a quarter of a million volunteers have been providing humanitarian relief in Ishinomaki since the disaster. One of the most labour-intensive jobs has been clearing mud. This was a massive and daunting task, but by working together the NGOs made a visible difference and the local authorities quickly came to appreciate their work. As disasters become bigger and strike with greater frequency, we must tap into the commitment and goodwill of volunteers, and ensure that they have a role in our preparations and plans.

Civil society has a relatively short history in Japan. But for the first time, an NGO representative was an integral part of the Disaster Response Headquarters in Ishinomaki, discussing issues with Government officials and Japan’s Self-Defence Force. This level of coordination between the local authorities and civil society was ground breaking.

Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos is currently visiting South-East Asia, where she is stressing the importance of coordination and preparedness for natural disasters. She will draw on the example of the Japan earthquake and tsunami to show what a difference partnerships and cooperation can make. As we look towards the future, building networks and involving partners at the local, bilateral and international levels will be an increasingly important part of disaster preparedness.

Masaki Watabe, Head, OCHA Kobe

Top Stories