UN UNIVERSITY LECTURES: 8
International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction:
Working against Time
Professor and Director
International Center for Disaster-Mitigation Engineering, Institute of Industrial Science
University of Tokyo
A Presentation Made at the United Nations University
on 13 October 1993,
IDNDR: Its Inception
"I believe there is great need, and much support can be found, to establish an International Decade of Hazard Reduction. This special initiative would see all nations joining forces to reduce the conse-quences of natural hazards," said Frank Press in his keynote address during the Opening Ceremony of the Eighth World Conference on Earthquake Engineering in San Francisco in July 1984. Frank Press at that time, and until very recently, was the President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Frank Press was one of the two laureates of the 1993 Japan Prize for his contributions in Safety Engineering and Disaster Mitigation. He is a geologist by profession and known as one of the pioneering scientists in modern seismology.
Although the International Association for Earthquake Engineering (IAEE) enthusiastically endorsed the idea and recommended prompt action for implementation, I then was only one of the interested observers. I never expected that I would personally be so strongly involved with this "wonderful but moneyless" project.
The United Nations has designated the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) to reduce loss of life, property damage, and social and economic disruption caused by natural disasters, especially in developing countries. The resolution for the IDNDR was adopted in 1987. The United Nations officially proclaimed the inauguration of the IDNDR on 1 January 1990.
Almost four years have passed since then. But effective actions taken to materialize its goals are few. There have been scores of large and small conferences and symposia which carried IDNDR in their names, and dozens of international academic organizations have published brochures stating their dreams to actively cooperate in the Decade project if some international funding becomes available.
Dr. Press' proposal gained the attention of academic institutions and associations worldwide. Some earthquake engineers felt responsible to do something because the original proposal was made at their professional meeting.
In Japan, it was also individual researchers in earthquake engineering who first showed interest in the proposal. In 1986, two years after the proposal by Dr. Press, a committee was formed under the auspices of the Science Council of Japan. This committee met many times to search for ways to realize the proposal. But the task seemed to be too big for us. Realization of the proposal seemed to be the problem of politicians, diplomats, and decision-makers in government.
To increase awareness about the Decade concept, we published articles in various professional journals, and invited Frank Press to Japan so that more people would become familiar with the Decade idea through his own words. In one of the speeches he delivered in Japan, Dr. Press stressed the importance of Japanese participation. He said, "Such a Decade is an endeavor in which Japan is uniquely qualified to participate ... you now have a special opportunity to give your knowledge to the great benefit of others."
The adoption of the UN resolution in 1987 was unexpected or at least too early for most of us. When the World Conference on Earth-quake Engineering was held in Japan in the summer of 1988, it was already known that IDNDR was going to start in 1990. Many people were aware that something had to be done. But nobody knew what that "something" was.
Natural Disasters: More than a Technological Problem
-The floods in the Mississippi River Valley in the United States of July and August 1993 caused huge property damage, perhaps exceeding a billion dollars, although casualties were small compared to similar catastrophes in less developed countries.
-On 12 July 1993, a major earthquake shook northern Japan, triggering devastating tsunamis. The hardest hit was a small northern island, where tsunamis and fires killed about 200 people.
-In August 1993, Japan experienced a landslip disaster in Kyushu, and widespread floods in Tokyo. Tokyo floods demonstrated that natural disasters can very easily paralyze a highly urbanized city.
The moral underlying these and other familiar stories is that even developed countries are not immune to natural disasters. In the last 20 years, the United Nations reports that natural disasters have claimed almost three million lives and have adversely affected more than 800 million people world-wide.
Considerable progress has been made in managing natural disaster risk in developed countries over the past four or five decades. But risk at the global level is still great. There are suggestions that global risk of natural hazards is in fact increasing, due to changing socio-economic patterns around the world, massive increase in urbanization, and changing priorities of governments to address the needs of their citizens. In many developing countries, disaster, environmental degradation and poverty form a closely-knit vicious cycle.
Losses due to natural disasters cannot be nullified, but they may be mitigated by integrating new and existing knowledge, and by managing risk through various structural and nonstructural strategies. Undoubtedly, international cooperation is needed to meet the challenge of this ever present and complex problem.
There are a great number of difficulties being encountered in realizing the good cause of the IDNDR. The greatest illusion or misapprehension about the IDNDR is that funding should be automatically available simply because it is a UN-endorsed project. We must face up to the reality that the name of the United Nations is not an Aladdin's lamp. Secondly, there is a need to point out that researchers and scientists in relevant professions all over the world have too naive an understanding on disasters.
The Manjil earthquake of 1990 in Iran killed more than 30,000 people, destroyed nearly 200,000 houses and buildings, and caused 500,000 people to become homeless. At three o'clock in the morning of 30 September 1993, I left Tehran Airport without knowing that a tragic earthquake had just occurred in India. I had been attending a three-day international conference in Iran. At the conference, there were discussions on new findings in earth sciences, non-elastic dynamic responses of structures, soil-structure interaction, fuzzy reasoning, neural networks and expert systems applied to earthquake engineering problems. The speakers and audience were all serious and sincere. But while scientists and engineers get together and discuss the most advanced findings in their relevant fields, disasters prevail in many developing countries.
Why were so many people killed by a relatively small earthquake in India? Most professionals know the answer. Structures collapse or suffer unacceptable damage because they are poorly engineered, poorly constructed, or they do not incorporate earthquake resistant knowledge that is known. The problem of poor buildings is, however, preventable.
At the same time, we know that disaster mitigation is not a simple technological or scientific problem, but it involves policy, money and manpower. Indeed, it comprises a formidable task. The matters which I have recently been personally involved with are small in the grand framework of the IDNDR, but as I have personally handled them, I have learned a number of hard lessons which I would like to share.
IDNDR Activities in Japan and Abroad
Public activities are, of course, important; however, conferences and brochures alone can never attain the goals of IDNDR. I have been thinking about the problem for nearly ten years now, initially as one of the earthquake engineers who heard the original proposal of the idea in 1984, then as Secretary General of the International Association for Earthquake Engineering (IAEE), and more recently as Director of the International Center for Disaster-Mitigation Engineering (INCEDE) located at the University of Tokyo, Japan, which was established as Japan's contribution to IDNDR.
At the Institute of Industrial Science of the University of Tokyo, an Institute with about 100 faculty members in a wide spectrum of engineering fields, we started to think how we could possibly contribute to IDNDR within the framework of university researchers once it became known that the UN had adopted the resolution in 1987. As a result of our efforts, we drafted a proposal, supported by researchers in other universities and research institutions, to form an international centre for natural disaster sciences in our Institute. INCEDE was established in April 1991, approved by the Ministry of Education, with myself as its first Director.
In 1988, I was appointed Secretary General of the IAEE. Although IAEE is highly visible through its World Conferences, it is an unaffiliated organization with a small staff, no dues, and no large sources of incomes. At the time of the World Conference on Earthquake Engineering held in Japan in 1988, we already knew that the UN had adopted the resolution to designate the 1990's as International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. Many of the Directors and National Delegates of IAEE were enthusiastic. And why not? After all, their idea had materialized as a UN programme. They resolved again that the earliest implementation should be made, and IAEE formed a small IDNDR committee.
As a newly appointed Secretary General, I did not know what to do. I knew I had to do something, but what? The creation of the Committee turned out to be superficial. There was not even a chance for the Committee members to get together until October 1991, when I organized a small workshop in Tokyo.
The meeting turned out to be an occasion of harsh self-examination for IAEE. One of the recommendations of the meeting read: "IAEE should make any structural changes that will facilitate its ability to promote the earthquake engineering program for the Decade." It was also recommended that IAEE should prepare a working paper on its role in the Decade, and that discussions should be scheduled during the World Conference to be held in Madrid in July 1992. A working paper had been prepared in time and a special session was held in Madrid. It was the consensus of the participants that progress towards achieving the earthquake disaster mitigation objectives of IDNDR is far too slow. Unless drastic changes are made in the organization of international and national programmes, it was clear that the objectives of the Decade would not be met.
The possibility for IAEE to have a significant impact in the IDNDR programme seemed to be remote unless a special project is estab-lished with the capacity of gathering work force and funds. There clearly is a lack of leadership at international level. Based on the recommendations made by the special session, the IAEE decided to form the World Seismic Safety Initiative (WSSI) as its new undertaking in support of IDNDR.
WSSI is intended to provide an organizational framework capable of raising funds and to undertake projects to fulfill the IAEE's responsibility to meet the goals of IDNDR. WSSI is planned to work as a corporation overseen by the IAEE Executive Committee. It will operate through working groups specifically formed for each project.
WSSI is a noble undertaking. But, however noble it may be, an idea remains an idea unless it is implemented. Following the decision made in Madrid, the WSSI Interim Organizing Committee was formed with myself as one of the co-chairmen. I thought this was the last opportunity for IAEE to contribute something definite to the IDNDR. However small it might be, WSSI should take actions. We knew that disasters respect our actions, not our words.
We attended the Scientific and Technical Committee of the IDNDR held in New Delhi in February 1993, and explained what we are planning to do. By doing so, we made ourselves more visible and committed. All exits were closed at our own initiative so that we can no longer turn back.
Immediately following the meeting in New Delhi, we held a small workshop in Bangkok on 'Seismic Risk Management for the Countries of the Asia Pacific Region.' We invited such countries as Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei, which had not been well represented in any of the earthquake engineering meetings before. We fully supported the participants from developing countries. It was not easy to raise even the small funds required for this meeting. But the Bangkok workshop was a great success, with 30 people attending from 20 countries. More than half of these attended the meeting with their own funding. The workshop turned out to be a breakthrough for the WSSI.
Participants reported on the state-of-the-art in earthquake engineering in their countries. They also commented on how the available knowledge was used or not used in developing earthquake disaster mitigation strategies in their home countries. The participants were sincere and discussions were lively. We found that a number of countries are waiting to be addressed to do something, although their names are rarely heard in the international earthquake engineering community.
Efforts to Raise Public Awareness
Conscientious engineers are feeling that something should be done. But because many are so left out from the main stream of the world earthquake engineering community, they do not know who to ask for intellectual or monetary assistance. We found that one of the greatest issues they are facing is that people in decision-making positions do not understand the importance of problems associated with natural disasters.
Uncertainty, ignorance and indeterminacy are always involved when we deal with natural disaster risk. But ignorance is probably the most difficult among these, especially ignorance within the ranks of decision-makers. There has to be acceptance of risk before it can be assessed. Education or knowledge transfer at the international level is essential.
We found that WSSI should help to raise public and government awareness of earthquake risk in the participating countries. Towards this objective, we recognized the importance of holding High Level Meetings, attended by government officials, business leaders, people from social and cultural institutions, as well as the mass media. As a result of the Bangkok meeting, three such High Level Meetings were held in late 1993 in Malaysia, Singapore and Nepal.
WSSI cosponsored the 'International Workshop on Seismotechtonics and Seismic Hazards in South East Asia' held in Hanoi, Vietnam, in January 1994-the first such meeting in Vietnam. WSSI also co-hosted a course on 'Earthquake Resistant Non-Engineered Buildings' in Hyderabad, India in March 1994. We will organize, in partnership with the Emergency Management Agency of Australia, a workshop for the South Pacific island countries.
There have been several offshoots of the Bangkok meeting, which we had least expected. One university in Singapore recently obtained a research grant for a project on 'Sumatran Earthquake Effects on Singapore Buildings.' And to our great surprise, the Ministry of Development of Brunei has initiated to implement its national seismograph network. In these countries, there had not been any interest in earthquake problems before the Bangkok workshop.
In 1992, I accepted the chairmanship of the Task Force on Natural Disaster Reduction of the Pacific Science Association, a regional non-profit scientific organization established in 1920. In that same year, PSA formed four Task Forces to enhance the activities of the Association.
In June 1993, the WSSI Interim Organizing Committee co-organized a workshop on 'Towards Natural Disaster Reduction' in Okinawa, together with the United Nations University and the Task Force on Natural Disaster Reduction of the Pacific Science Association. The workshop was strongly supported by the United Nations University. It was attended by about 30 participants from more than a dozen of Pacific-rim countries and international agencies. There were engineers, natural and social scientists, geographers, economists, and organization experts. The workshop was a success in bringing together persons of various professions and in letting them under-stand the commonalities and differences among their views on natural disasters.
After about one year's activities as the Interim Organizing Committee, the official Board of WSSI Directors was formed in September 1993. To the first Board of Directors held in Tokyo on 7 September 1993, seven Directors-out of the total of 11-attended from Japan, the U.S., the Philippines and Germany-all on their funding. I believe that WSSI is finally taking off. It is making definite steps forward towards the goals of IDNDR.
Lessons from Experience
During the past few years, I have learned a lot. The biggest lesson I have learnt is that there are people-in fact, many people all over the world-who deeply believe in the good causes of IDNDR and are waiting to be addressed for their active participation. The "moneyless" situation of WSSI has not changed, but I am not too discouraged. Natural disaster mitigation requires long-term commitment. It involves moral and ethical issues. It is important to consider the well-being of future generations.
When I was attending the international conference in Tehran, I was repeatedly asked, "What is the best way to mitigate earthquake disasters?" "How can we best raise people's awareness to earthquake problems?" These are difficult questions. Solutions will never come to realize in a year or two. There is no magic as far as natural disaster mitigation is concerned. I tried to explain how Japan itself has come through difficult years to achieve the level we have today.
In 1891, about 100 years ago, we had one of the worst earthquake disasters in the history of Japan. It destroyed more than 140,000 houses and killed more than 7,000 people. The earthquake occurred during the period in which Japan was importing western technology. We realized then that, unless we consider earthquake effects in our construction technology, there would not be a safe tomorrow for us.
But within 30 years from the Nobi earthquake, we had another devastating earthquake, this time very badly affecting Tokyo and Yokohama. More than 140,000 people were killed. We learned hard lessons from the earthquake. We decided to use large earthquake design forces because, at that time, we did not know much about earthquakes nor how to build structures to resist them. We began to take into account the effects of surrounding soils for such structures as retaining walls and reservoirs. And we stopped using bricks as structural elements.
Until 1950, however, there had been seven earthquakes which killed more than 1,000 people, that is about every four or five years. Statistics clearly show, however, life loss due to earthquakes has become very small after 1950. I am not prepared to say that this is completely due to advancements in science and technology. We have to admit that a really big earthquake has not since hit densely populated, urbanized areas.
However, we now know-at least better than most of the peoples in the other parts of the world-that analysis, design, and construction alone are not enough to mitigate earthquake disasters. Many Japanese realize that maintenance, repair and strengthening of structures during the ordinary times are important. We now understand the importance of such non-structural measures as damage assessment, preparedness, education, and training. It took us over 100 years of experience to learn these well.
It is true that indigenous problems are inherent in disaster mitigation. It is also true that large and small countries often have different kinds of problems. Most advanced technologies may not be useful everywhere. But the most effective way of reducing earthquake disasters is through better construction practices, and most of the knowledge necessary to improve building practices already exists.
It is important to identify areas and practices, where the time tested successful experience of one country can be applied in another country with similar conditions. Exchange of information, experience and practices evolved in developed countries would be useful in developing countries, when they go through similar economic and infrastructural development phases already experienced elsewhere.
Natural disasters cannot be prevented but in many cases it is possible to identify the vulnerable hazardous areas and to estimate the possible damage. Programmes can be undertaken to identify the possible locations, to decrease the amount of damage and to respond promptly in the aftermath of a disaster.
Maintaining the flow of information, and making it easily accessible by any interested party is extremely important. Integration of differ-ent disaster-mitigation strategies is important. Especially, structural and non-structural strategies should be more tightly woven together. Making a building stronger is not a single measure nor the most cost effective measure to reduce earthquake disaster.
IDNDR: Dream or Reality?
We do not know yet whether we are facing a dream or a reality. The successes of INCEDE and WSSI depend to a large degree on the positive responses of outside agencies, engineers and scientists of all professions.
Groups of people who are really devoted-"devoted to take actions" -are needed. I would like to ask all people to take actions-however small they may be-to achieve the goals of IDNDR. What is most needed is team spirit: team spirit among all nations; team spirit among engineers and scientists of different professions; and team spirit among all kinds of people working for disaster mitigation. Natural disaster mitigation on the global scale is a formidable task. The challenge to us now is to find the right mix of actions that will manage the natural disaster risk as an integrated strategy. Let me quote again from the original proposal made by Frank Press in 1984:
"What better way to start the new millennium than a world better organized to reduce suffering from natural disasters. I believe that the involvement of dedicated scientists and engineers ... is the key to achieving these essential global goals."
Return to previous page
Return to the UNU Homepage