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Minding the Gap: Managing Needs and Capacity After Disaster in Japan

In December 2012 a group of researchers, government officials, and business leaders sat down to talk about disaster recovery and ways to build resiliency. The discussion was surprisingly frank and challenging and we think there are lessons for people interested in the topic, so we are posting this edited transcript of the discussion here. Participants included Tokutaro Hiramoto (Chief Consultant, Emerging and BoP Markets Consulting), Yosuke Nakayama (Chief, Global Environmental Affairs Office, METI), Yoshitomo Mori (Assistant Director, Research and Information Office, Japan Ministry of the Environment), Sosuke Tanaka (Unit Chief, Research/Coordination Section, Japan Reconstruction Agency), Masaki Takahashi (CEO, Kesennuma Shokai), Ranjith Perera (Associate Professor, Sultan Qaboos University), Andries Jordaan (Director, Disaster Management Training and Education Centre for Africa). . The discussion was moderated by Wanglin Yan.

Wanglin Yan: Normally you might think that climate change and disaster are different, not the same issue at all, but really they are the same. They share the same fundamentals, and share a lot of theory. An important concept to think about in this light is our adaptive capacity. This idea requires us to ask what level of capacity do we need to build up in order to cope? So that we can survive this kind of crisis? From this kind of disaster? Is it different in the short term and the long term? Starting from there I would like to ask your feeling about the idea of adaptive capacity in your field, with your colleague or in your business target. From there, what must we do to improve adaptive capacity?

Andries Jordaan: I think adaptive capacity at the individual level is in most cases also linked to the risk profile of individuals. Are you willing to do things new, in a different way than you used to do it in the past? But you cannot only measure it by looking at the individual because you need the institutions around that, the market, the inputs, the whole environment, and society must be able to adapt together with individuals so that is not something that can happen, say, within a specific livelihood. You need whole systems to adapt together with that. If you look at companies who need to adapt, they need to adapt for a certain need in the market, et cetera, so the whole environment needs to adapt to a new challenge, which in this case, what we're talking about is climate change. I think I will stand with that.

Masaki Takahashi [speaking in Japanese]: From my position, the day after the disaster struck we had to supply gasoline to the pump stations, and when I think about it, it just happened that way. We had our employees there because we are a local company and we had gasoline in our underground storage tank. But I think we were the only ones who opened up our pump station the day after the disaster. When we think about future disasters we have to build appropriate institutions, we shouldn't depend on coincidence.

Sosuke Tanaka [speaking in Japanese]: Based upon my own experience, I can say that the network is most important. By that I mean the issues that we should think about in public venues like this are the things that we cannot solve alone – things like global warming, international relationships, and major disasters. Each individual may believe a certain approach would be the best way to manage the issues, but that can only be a partial solution. You may be able to find a better answer around you, in the public sector or local government, or the private sector, or something may be possible with help from civil servants like myself. What I think is interesting at my work right now (at the Japan Reconstruction Agency) is that this new government agency was established in a way primarily for political reasons. But in the agency there are representatives from all the ministries, representatives from the regions hit by disaster, and also from private sector companies. All working together. They each have different experiences and they are willing to share their experiences and knowledge, and it is from that mix that we can develop a really new scheme. It’s a new cycle.

Yosuke Nakayama [speaking in Japanese]: What I want to say is that in implementing these projects, for the Japanese companies their target audience is the people themselves. Or at most, small regions or citizen groups in developing countries. As was already mentioned, probably these people in the developing countries need to adapt, and maybe they will see damage as a result of climate change. Perhaps they know that, in the back in their minds, even if they do not know it overtly. Uncovering the needs of people in that situation as companies work to build good solutions for them, well I think that is enhancing the adaptive capacity of Japanese companies. I think that the technology used in these efforts in Japan can be re-purposed for use in developing countries.

My second point is that METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) has carried out study sessions with companies regarding adaptation, asking them what they think will happen when disaster strikes. That is perhaps not an adaptation activity in itself but as a consequence adaptive capacity is being identified, defined and enhanced....In the case of one particular manufacturer they had built a market in a developing country, and in their contingency planning had recognized that if the population did not grow healthily the market would disappear. That was their fear. They also saw that one of the big issues related to market erosion for them was climate change and the social upheaval that it would cause. For them this included the loss of agriculture as a result of climate change, which would directly push their customers and clients away. They would move to urban areas where they would still be faced with poor prospects and in such a crisis situation there is the possibility of groups like Al Qaeda taking advantage of the problems and making things worse. I think this is a rare case, but the manufacturer was suggesting that when it comes to business related to climate change they think it is necessary to look that far into the future and weigh the possibilities.

Tokutaro Hiramoto [speaking in Japanese]: In response to this last point, I would like to talk about how the private sector is improving its adaptive capacity and how companies are leveraging their strengths and how they are making things possible. Normally, I'm responsible for BOP (Bottom of Pyramid) business in agricultural areas in developing countries, and focused on how businesses might help to alleviate poverty. Since 2009, Japanese businesses have been involved in BOP business. They have maintained a keen interest and various companies have challenged the field. By contrast, in the normal way of things, companies usually undertake business in advanced industrialized countries, but in relation to the previous discussion, they are now going into a totally different environment. That is their challenge. In their efforts to go down that road the companies are faced with crisis after crisis. They have difficulty finding water, or have to deal without power or electricity. In the face of those challenges they are forced to come up with new solutions. But then having taken those steps, the disaster struck [Japan], and what happened was… well, for example, Panasonic had already developed a solar-powered lantern. They developed it for places where there was normally no electricity, and so they took that technology and sold it in the disaster-stricken areas of Japan. Their efforts in the challenging environments outside Japan taught them to leverage their strengths and, in a way, enhanced their adaptive capacity. Technological development works in both directions, which is where it becomes interesting. For example, NEC has sensor technology that it developed for areas with salt damage in India, and their products were useful in the Japanese disaster area (because of the tsunami). But then after using it in Japan they were able to incorporate new lessons and the things learned in Japan were taken back to India. So in this way companies are honing their adaptive capabilities because they are working in different environments. That leads to improved adaptation skills.

Ranjith Perera: In response to your question I would like to say from the urban planning perspective, in urban areas, the main resources are land and human resources. Land is so crucial in adaptive capacity because planners allocate land for their intended purposes, the most recommended purposes...I think we need to, say, look at our land allocation more critically instead of allowing land development in vulnerable areas, more dangerous areas, but sadly this is not the truth. In many of our countries in Asia, the new populations are settling in the most vulnerable areas.

That's why you hear that when a big disaster happens, like a few weeks ago in Manila, or last year (2011) in Bangkok, the whole urban system goes under water. When the national capital goes under water, that affects the economy of the whole country. Now what is the response in terms of improving the adaptive capacity by these companies? About 25 percent decided to relocate to more favorable places, and about 75 percent decided to improve their capacity by building flood walls and increasing their height. These are physical things, but the thing is they are not permanent, and at one point, at some trigger point, they will decide to move. When businesses move and people move, what will happen to the national economy and the social system? This is why I emphasize that the management of land and infrastructure is the key for improving adaptive capacity for climate change.

Audience [speaking in Japanese]: I think the word mismatch is very important. On having listened to the presentations I think there was a mismatch there as well. The person from the disaster-stricken area said, where there were rules with regard to land use standards, he said that these rules must be formulated and put in place. But the director of the institute talked about business management, technology, and network. In specific terms, maybe he doesn't see the importance of this rule-making aspect. I'd like to invite comments from the speakers to this point.

Sosuke Tanaka [speaking in Japanese]: So where do I start? You’re talking about putting rules in place in advance [of disaster]. In my presentation I talked about how things should be left to the experts - people who are good at certain things should work in areas of their expertise and that’s the most efficient approach. In local governments or municipalities there is a disaster assistance contract between the governments. It forms a network which enables governments to help each other in cases of disaster, but I think this alone is insufficient.

However, for central government to formulate rules that we should obey, I’m against that. I represent that very government so it’s ironic I should be saying this, but I’m against big government. Right after the disaster what was happening in the prime minister’s office was very inefficient. Because fixed land lines could not be used, the government gathered information from its own wireless network, and they would hear from police stations things like how a certain hospital had only a few hours of fuel left, but information was very limited. From Tokyo they would select areas where they could provide assistance based on this system. For the central government to be engaging in this action was really like a planned economy. But information was very limited, so there was a mismatch between the needs on the local scene and what the central government was aware of, and there was a time lag as well.

Returning to disaster contracts, the formation of a natural network is the most efficient I think. In the case of the Hanshin earthquake, volunteers tried to leverage their strengths to help people in the disaster-stricken areas. At the time CSR it is and it’s in their brochures used to recruit employees. It’s different from normal assistance or monetary contributions. In the case of a business working out how to provide support during a time span of 10 or 20 years, the central government must formulate minimum necessary rules and laws. As much as possible, however, this should not be written in stone. I think governments should work to support voluntary efforts and that way we will see faster action.

Masaki Takahashi [speaking in Japanese]: I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to add that many volunteers came to the disaster area, but it took a lot of effort just to respond to their presence. We had to check their identities because we didn't know them at all, nor where they came from.
Also, and this is really important, many different technologies were brought in to help us, but unfortunately so many were not useful, not effective. What was needed on the night of day one was different from what was needed three weeks later. Needs kept changing very quickly. Ironically solar powered lanterns arrived the same time our electrical grid went back online, so some thought needs to be given regarding timing. If something happens in Shikoku or Kyushu someone should be able to give instructions to start work immediately. When timing is delayed by one day, three days or one week something that might have been effective becomes un-useful, and a waste.