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Japan's natural disaster challenges on top of COVID-19

June 4, 2020

Experts are concerned that local authorities in the most seismically active nation in the world would be overwhelmed should a natural disaster add to the problems caused in their communities by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Japan's natural disaster challenges on top of COVID-19
Image: picture-alliance/Kyodo

Disaster mitigation specialists have warned that local governments the length and breadth of Japan may not have taken adequate precautions to deal with a major natural disaster at the same time as the nation is struggling to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

According to the national government's statistics, 16,986 cases of the virus have been reported across Japan and there have been precisely 900 fatalities to date. And while those figures may be relatively positive in comparison with a lot of other nations, two clusters have emerged this week, one in Tokyo that has been traced back to a number of nightclubs and a second in schools in Kitakyushu, in the far south of the country. 

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The government has responded by reiterating warnings for people to take precautions to safeguard their health and emphasized that it is going to take many months to overcome the pandemic. 

Japan's unique vulnerabilities to natural disasters were again underlined this week, with an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.7 rattling large parts of northeast Japan at 5:31 a.m. on Thursday morning. There was no significant damage from the quake and no tsunami warning was issued, but it was a reminder that Japan sits atop constantly shifting tectonic plates and disaster could strike at any moment. 

Volcano disaster anniversary

On Wednesday, memorial services were held for the 43 people who were killed when Mount Unzen erupted 29 years ago. Experts fear that should another natural disaster strike while hospitals and the emergency services are already under pressure due to the coronavirus crisis, the system could be stretched beyond breaking point. 

"Not all local government officials are sufficiently well informed of the risks in their areas or prepared for what could happen to their residents," said Shigeo Aramaki, a retired professor of volcanology at the University of Tokyo and formerly an adviser to the national government. "Every local authority needs to know the natural phenomenon that they might face in their region," he said. 

That might be a volcano, including peaks that are reportedly extinct as they may only be dormant, Aramaki said, or known faults that are associated with earthquakes. Coastal regions must also be aware of the threat posed by a tsunami triggered by an offshore earthquake — as northeastern Japan experienced in March 2011. Similarly, Japan experiences a distinct typhoon season in the summer months and those storm systems have in recent years become more powerful and increasingly destructive, with the majority of deaths caused by landslides as hillsides become destabilized by heavy rain.

"I really feel that not enough local authorities have complete knowledge of the risks that exist for their residents and have not done work to predict outcomes of disaster scenarios," Aramaki told DW. "And that is a mistake because if they do not know what might happen, then they cannot be fully prepared."

Worst-case scenario

Nevertheless, some cities and towns are making efforts to be prepared for a worst-case scenario of natural disaster on top of the coronavirus crisis. 

The city of Kesennuma, in Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan, late last month announced plans to increase the number of schools and community centers dotted through the community that would provide shelter, particularly to elderly residents, in the event of flooding, landslides or an earthquake. Twelve facilities have been earmarked as emergency shelters under existing plans but that is being increased to 25. 

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The aim is to spread people out to avoid the "three Cs" of closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings that serve as a breeding ground for the coronavirus. Should the facilities be needed, evacuees will be told that they need to keep 2 meters from the other people around them and use disinfectant on their hands regularly. 

Elsewhere, the Mainichi newspaper has reported that the city of Amagasaki, in central Japan, will provide shelters solely for people who have been in close contact with anyone confirmed to have contracted the virus or people who are returning from abroad and need to undergo a two-week quarantine period. 

Other cities are working with hotel operators to provide rooms should it be necessary to isolate people with the virus if a disaster should strike. Hotel companies appear to be open to the idea as they currently have very few leisure guests. 

Putting faith in hope

Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor specializing in infection control at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, knows how it is to be on the frontline when disaster strikes and illness is running rife. In September of last year, she volunteered to help residents of Kyushu after a powerful typhoon ripped through their communities, injuring more than 60 people. The storm coincided with an outbreak of the norovirus in the region. 

"It is very hard to predict most natural disasters that could occur in Japan, such as an earthquake, so it is therefore hard for authorities in these towns to know exactly what they have to prepare for," she said.

"The best that they can do is to prepare for the worst and hope that it does not happen," she said, adding that all local authorities are also going to be operating under tight financial constraints and may not have the funds to deal with all eventualities. 

"Now we have the coronavirus, I think communities are realizing that they are not able to be ready for everything that could happen at the same time," she said. "They will just have to do the best they can — and hope."

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea