16.02.2012 - ODG

Learning from the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

What happened during the Tsunami and Earthquake of 11 March 2011? Why did some people not evacuate while others did? How can a tsunami warning be understandable and effective? What is the role of the mass media? How can international cooperation be strengthened?

These are some of the questions tackled by the Japan-UNESCO-UNU International Symposium on the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami that opened in Tokyo on 16 February 2012, in the presence of His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Nahurito and UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova.

“The Great East Japan Tsunami and Earthquake is one of those rare events that divides history into a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ “Japan has been deeply affected, and so has the entire international community,” said the Director-General in her opening remarks. “The world held its breath during the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima. This has led many countries to raise questions – about their approach to development, about their strategies for risk reduction. We are all turning to Japan for ideas, to listen and to learn.”

Describing the event as “an unprecedented catastrophe,” the Crown Prince stressed the importance of international measures to counter tsunamis and improve the effectiveness of warning systems.

“Such systems depend on international collaboration” said Ms Bokova, citing the examples of warning systems in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, among others, in which UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission has played a leading role.

With the most advanced tsunami warning system in the world, Japan is a global standard setter. But with the death toll of the March 2011 tsunami nearing 20,000, it is also at the forefront of reflections on how to improve risk preparedness.

Education and the media have a key role to play.

Lives were saved when school children evacuated to higher ground, with middle school students leading younger ones to safety. But they were also lost when people lost vital minutes by not taking warnings seriously.

NHK television is now studying why and where people did not evacuate.  During the symposium, it showed footage broadcast at the time of the tsunami, from the moment when coverage of a session of parliament was interrupted by the announcement of the earthquake to the first tsunami warning four minutes later and calls to viewers  in affected areas to evacuate to higher ground.

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