Sasakawa Day 4: 3 WCDRR

I needed to change it up a bit today. Day four, and the energy is flagging a bit. I’d hate to think about how the negotiators are going. Apparently they were at it until 4 am this morning. As a result of less relevant (and perhaps less interesting) sessions, and the feeling of cabin fever, I took the opportunity to check out the Sendai Mediatheque, where an exhibition of the Tohuku Earthquake was running. It was an exceptionally well thought out exhibition, placing the EQ in context, giving feeling for the power of the destruction, and the challenge of the recovery. Just on that, it was 9.0 on the richter scale, Honshu moved 2.4metres westward, the sound could be detected in space, and the tsunami reached up to 40 metres in one place. What has struck me from all that I have read and seen, is that there is a strong focus on psychosocial support in the recovery efforts. This did surprise me a little, because of the external perception of the Japanese as being a formal, stoic lot. (Wrong of course, shouldn’t stereotype). There also seems to be a strong emphasis on remembrance as well. Of course this is all official information, it would be interesting to see what the people think. This is good though, as one person in a session said today, when we think about building it back better, we should not only think about bricks and mortar, but also body and soul.

I had a long, fascinating conversation (through an interpreter) with a woman about a number of aspects of the earthquake. They had a great interactive display using QR codes to scan images of impacts, and then it would tell a story. Two things that struck me was the evacuation centre management. The city is responsible for evacuation centres. They quickly realised that in Sendai City, the collapse of public transport, and the extreme cold weather (it was snowing), meant a lot of people went to the evacuation centres, and they were quickly overwhelmed. They called upon other agencies, they realised they didn’t have basics such as blankets. She described the planning that had been done since then, that they could quickly access resources, that they practised things like working at night without power (registrations by torchlight anyone?) , getting students to set up portable toilets etc. The other interesting thing was an initiative to help people walk home. Convenience stores have all signed up to a scheme, where if there is a disaster, they will provide people with water and food, and information to help them walk home.

One of the striking things for me is that how publicly, the Japanese are willing to admit that they weren’t up to it during the earthquake and tsunami, that they made mistakes, that they were overwhelmed and needed help. Again another myth busted. I was also taken by the times when I praised something, describing it as fantastic, the deep sense of gratitude people display. A very cute situation also occurred when a group of primary school kids came up to me and gave me a pamphlet of a project that they have been working on and wanted to tell me about it. I must have appeared like a giant to them (I feel very oafish in this land of petite) so I squatted down to talk to them. Unfortunately for them, I think they were a bit overwhelmed, and ran away.

Back at the Sendai International Center, the main session I attended was Child and Youth don’t plan my future without me. Surprisingly (or not perhaps), the panel, while having young people on it, was still dominated by us oldies. The presentations from the young people, particularly Hirata, the japanese school girl was fantastic. She described that the kids were shut out of the recovery process, that they weren’t told anything, so they ended up organising themselves, and contributed to recovery. For her this was an important part of her recovery, to be involved in something. As I have blogged before, I don’t think we have really thought about that in Australia.

Finally, on the reason that I came to the conference. Red Cross has been working with a number of the leading businesses in Australia (IAG, Westpac, Optus) to develop and deliver evidence based advocacy to government about the need to shift funding into mitigation. This work has been successful in getting government to undertake a review of disaster funding. We were nominated for the UN’s Sasakawa Award, the key international disaster risk reduction award, longlisted, and then shortlisted to three. It is an amazing honour, the first private sector initiative to get that close. We were up against two very strong and worthy candidates, the Jeffreystown Famers Collective from Jamaica and Dr Allan Lovell, a well-respected researcher from the Caribbean. Allan, whom I have met about ten years ago, was the deserved winner of the award, and visibly moved by the recognition of his lifetime work.

It was a strange feeling to be walking back to my hotel room in the cold clear air of the Sendai night. It has been an extraordinary experience, although it feels a little bit empty now, it’s over, what next, etc. I have, however, fallen a little bit in love with this land, it’s strange contradictions, formality and frivolity. I only which I could speak the language and understand it more.

Did I learn from the Conference? Yes, a lot, although I think I was more reaffirmed in my thinking, our thinking about how we go about things. I have learned that economists are people too, and they hold the key to what we are trying to do. We must put a price on the intangible, the disruption, the social cost of people’s misery, so that we can develop real value propositions (see I’ve learnt something) for investment. It will be the only way we’ll get true change in policy, and behaviour change at then individual through to government level.

Did I play a part? No, there was a whole other process going on here that I was oblivious to. The fixer in me itched break into the negotiator room and sort things out. Strange, being on the outside.

What will I take away? I think a greater resolve to integrate what we do into the everyday. It must become BAU rather than this black art that we, and we alone practice, and can’t get anyone to fund.

Was I inspired? Absolutely. Some of the experiences I have heard here have been fantastic. I consider myself to be the most fortunate guy, I work in an area that deals with people’s despair and heartbreak, in an incredibly uncertain time, but I have a great job, I work with amazing people, and I think with our band of fellow travellers, mostly under the cover of darkness, we will do our little bit to grapple with this seemingly intractable problem.

Mr Ryuichi sakamoto, who I learned this week has throat cancer. Speedy recovery Sakamoto-san, we still need your genius.

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2 thoughts on “Sasakawa Day 4: 3 WCDRR

  1. John, I have really enjoyed living vicariously through you at Sendai and I too wish it wasn’t over….I also wish the fixer in you had taken over and broken into the negotiation rooms because patient, practical and creative John would, I am sure, have spoken a lot of sense and contributed much. Safe travels home.

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