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Fukushima: Five years on

10 mar 2016


The day the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in 2011, Sarii lost her sister, Erika, and older brother Kotaro. Sarii wears the hat Kotaro was supposed to wear to kindergarten. Kotaro's body has not been found yet. Credit: Yuki Iwanami
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11 March marks the anniversary of a disaster that killed 19,000 people and displaced thousands of others

Humanitarian crises are not often associated with developed countries. However, nature does not discriminate between developed and developing countries. The Great East Japan earthquake, which struck Fukushima on 11 March 2011, is proof that even in a disaster-prepared country such as Japan, nature can still cause massive destruction and threaten people’s lives and dignity.

The devastating earthquake and tsunami triggered an “unthinkable” disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The disaster happened 25 years after the 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Half a decade later, over 100,000 people are still displaced from their homes, living in temporary housing as the decontamination efforts continue.

It is clear that the global humanitarian community remains ill-equipped to address the potentially long-lasting needs of people at risk from complex and emerging threats associated with so-called technological hazards. This remains a pressing, if often unaddressed, issue. As urbanization and industrialization increase, so do the risks associated with technological hazards. Other factors, such as extreme weather events associated with climate change, are also bringing increasingly unpredictable risks to technological infrastructure. Fukushima and Chernobyl show that the international community must be better prepared for future disasters and emerging threats.

The Fukushima disaster also shows us that yet again, the most effective humanitarian response happens when there is a partnership with affected communities and coordination with relevant authorities. Thus, local, national and international actors all must play an essential role in scaling up preparedness, response and recovery activities.

Meeting the world’s increasing need for humanitarian assistance will require a radical shift in how the world prepares for and responds to disasters. In his recent report for the World Humanitarian Summit, titled One Humanity – Shared Responsibility, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon underlined that “success must now be measured by how people's vulnerability and risk are reduced.” He stressed that national and local systems need to be reinforced, and local leadership and capacities need to be respected and strengthened and not undermined through outside interventions. If we want to address the uncommon dangers and challenges related to radiological hazards, a strong commitment to strengthening local capacities is necessary.

Such capacity-strengthening must see the humanitarian community partner with local actors in order to ensure communities receive the support and risk information they themselves deem necessary. Access to risk information is critical to community engagement and preparedness, especially where information on technological hazards needs to be openly and transparently communicated. In Japan, many people have chosen to move away and start their lives in new locations. Among those who remain are the elderly and vulnerable people who struggle to determine what the acceptable risks are and when to act on trustworthy information.

Added to these stresses is the social stigma that many people continue to experience. It is critical to engage local communities in a meaningful dialogue and to work to link information providers with the population.

During the disaster, OCHA deployed a technical team to Japan to help its Government to report on humanitarian needs and to coordinate international assistance. OCHA’s Japan office works closely with Japanese partners to share lessons learned and to improve response to other humanitarian crises.