Japan resilient, but climate change making disasters worse: experts

TOKYO, Sept 7, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Record typhoons, biblical floods,
heatwaves, landslides and earthquakes: this summer, Japan really has seen it
all and images of the destruction caused have been beamed around the world.

And while world-class infrastructure and high-tech warning systems means
the death toll and damage is generally lower in Japan than elsewhere, climate
change is putting that to the test, experts say.

Moreover, citizens used to decades of natural disasters may be
underestimating the risk posed by stronger climate change-related phenomena.

More than 220 died in floods in July mainly because “less than one percent
of people affected by local evacuation recommendations actually went to the
shelters, thinking that there would not be a problem,” notes Jean-Francois
Heimburger, an expert on natural disasters in the country.

Unlike in other countries, even the highest levels of evacuation orders in
Japan are not compulsory and the vast majority of people ignore them.

“People tend to treat advisories too complacently based on their personal
experiences,” said Kimio Takeya, visiting professor at Tohoku University, who
also sits on a UN climate change body.

But in this era of climate change, personal experience is no longer a
reliable guide.

“We are seeing rainfall that we have not seen before. Past experience does
not help in this regard. It is also difficult to evacuate your home when rain
falls at night,” he added.

Local governments produce “hazard maps” to show where residences are in
danger of flooding or from landslides or tsunamis, but they are little used
and public awareness of them is low.

This raises the question: Why would anyone live at the bottom of a mountain
in such a seismically active country?

For one thing, explains Takeya, roughly 75 percent of the country is
mountainous, so there will always likely be some inhabitants — often farmers
— living nearby.

And farmers traditionally cultivated the flat land for rice fields,
building farmhouses on the land right at the bottom of the mountain.

“Families do not leave ancestral properties because the Japanese patriarcal
system is tied to land,” said Takeya.

Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to scenes like those played out this
week in Atsuma, a small community engulfed by a landslide.

– ‘Nowhere perfectly safe’ –

Nevertheless, analysts point out that Japan is still well-equipped to deal
with such catastrophes and death tolls are often surprisingly low.

“Had these disasters happened in other nations, the damage would have been
hugely worse, maybe 50 times had they happened in Europe or other parts of
Asia,” said Takeya.

Until recently, Japan invested up to seven percent of its national budget
on disaster mitigation, which significantly improved its resilience, he
added. Only a handful of people died as a direct result of Thursday’s 6.6-
magnitude earthquake on the northern island of Hokkaido.

The overwhelming majority of casualties were residents of a few dozen
dwellings hit by the landslide.

High-tech Japan has “weather forecasts that are more precise thanks to
better satellites and new houses and buildings that are more resistant to
shocks,” said Heimburger.

And Tadashi Suetsugi, a professor at the University of Yamanashi, said that
the people in Japan, one of the world’s most seismically active areas, “have
just had to learn how to live with disasters.”

“Near the ocean, you face risks of a tsunami. Near rivers, you have
flooding. Near mountains, you may have landslides.

“If you include earthquakes, there is really no region that’s perfectly
safe in Japan” which is preparing to host two massive international sporting
events — the Rugby World Cup next year and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Taking the example of Tokyo, Heimburger notes there are 372 zones
designated as “highly dangerous”, where buildings could collapse or burst
into flame during a major earthquake.

“There are more than one million people there. You cannot tell them all to
move,” he said.