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Japanese earthquake: tested to the limit

Japan has become the latest government to have their crisis management capability tested by extreme natural disaster.

Japan has become the latest government to have their crisis management capability tested by extreme natural disaster.

The first quarter of 2011 has seen an unprecedented cluster of natural disasters in developed countries – from floods in Queensland and Victoria, to the Christchurch earthquake, to the devastation of northern Japan, with the added risk of nuclear fallout. The catastrophic impact of last Friday’s quake and tsunami in Japan shows that even the very best preparation can be overwhelmed by violent and unpredictable events of this magnitude. Japan has a well-drilled population, strict building regulations and some of the most extensive earthquake planning in the world. But right now the estimates of dead and missing, the nuclear emergency, and the numbers of people in need of basic supplies and sanitation are a reminder that sometimes all a government can do is try to cope. This is what crisis management is all about. Being able to react with speed and certainty, explaining what you are doing, and making the best use of your strained resources can have a huge impact in the short, medium and long term.

Contingency planning

The scale of contingency planning and speedy reaction has undoubtedly saved lives. It is also clear lessons were learnt from the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami on early warning systems. But with such extreme events preparation can only mitigate. In the immediate aftermath the focus has been on reacting to the urgent consequences of the earthquake and tsunami. Some of this is about the government knowing where it needs to intervene directly and where it should let local authorities, specialist expertise and emergency services get on with it. Crises also sometimes require a certain detachment by the authorities.

Action and communication

The explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have shown how action and communication go hand in hand. The images of the blasts and any mention of possible fallout have understandably provoked great concern. Yet, though not coordinated, there has been a fairly consistent message from various sources. Japanese officials, international organisations like the IAEA, and varied experts on the news are emphasising 'this is not another Chernobyl'. Getting information involves a tricky balance of timeliness and accuracy and the situation is constantly changing. Some confusion is unavoidable, but the lesson comes back to coordination of resources – avoiding a reaction that could hamper efforts elsewhere.

Hurricane Katrina

The Japanese government, and international community, will have to sustain their focus and resources over a long period to come. It is far too soon to judge how well they are coping, and Japan will no doubt look back on this experience and see mistakes that were made or things that could have been done differently. But as the Bush administration found, with its botched handling of Hurricane Katrina, people expect governments to be able to deliver under extreme pressure, and failure to do so is a sure way of losing any public reputation for competence. It may also seem too early to reflect on the lessons. But if there is one thing events such as this remind us it is the need to expect the unexpected, and to be prepared to contemplate the extreme, because when the extreme and unexpected do hit you there’s no time to plan.

Public sector
Institute for Government

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