Tuesday, March 19, 2013
EDITORIAL: Focus Quake Response On Limiting Damage
TOKYO (Nikkei)--The government's estimates of damage in the event of a magnitude-9 earthquake off the Pacific coast in western Japan are shocking, but the scale of the potential damage is no excuse for lax earthquake preparedness.
A quake of that magnitude in the Nankai Trough could cause as much as 220 trillion yen worth of damage, according to an estimate published Monday by a Cabinet Office panel. That would be 13 times the economic losses from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and more than double the size of the national budget.
Seismologists say such megaquakes could occur with an average frequency of once in 1,000 years, but the March 11 calamity shows the importance of preparing for rare events that can cause immense devastation.
Rather than paralysis, the frightening picture painted by the panel should encourage steady implementation of policies to mitigate the damage. Last year, the panel forecast that a magnitude-9 earthquake with a focus in the deep trough running in parallel to the Pacific coastline of western Japan could cause 320,000 deaths. The panel's latest report forecasts the economic damage from such a quake.
Direct damage, including losses due to the destruction of houses and property, is estimated at 170 trillion yen, while indirect damage caused by disruption in production and services could cost 50 trillion yen.
Preparing For The Worst
Given that the areas affected by such a quake are home to half of Japan's population and economic activity, these estimates cannot be dismissed as alarmist.
The challenge is how to reduce the damage. The government should first set specific targets for disaster mitigation such as improving the quake resistance of vulnerable buildings. Then the government and private sector must work together to reach those targets.
If all buildings are brought into compliance with legal standards for quake resistance, some 80 trillion yen in direct economic losses could be prevented. In addition, 30% of the indirect damage could be avoided if steps are taken to ensure the safe evacuation of people in disaster zones.
Spend It Wisely
The government has increased spending on disaster prevention as part of an emergency economic package following the 2011 disaster. But it is vital to spend the money efficiently. Reinforcing older public buildings such as hospitals and schools should be the immediate priority.
Building high seawalls to fend off rare extremely large tsunamis is not a good use of scarce resources. Efforts to prevent losses from tsunamis should focus on ensuring quick evacuation.
Companies, for their part, need to work on making their supply chains less vulnerable by spreading their operations geographically. A major Nankai Trough temblor could measure 7 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale -- the maximum reading -- in 10 prefectures in the Tokai region of central Japan and areas to the west. Companies whose plants and suppliers are concentrated in these areas clearly need to find alternative facilities and suppliers elsewhere.
To promote damage-mitigation, the government must integrate separate laws passed to deal with a Tokai earthquake and a Tonankai and Nankai quake. In addition, the law dealing with the response to large-scale earthquakes, which is based on the assumption that a Tokai quake can be predicted, should be scrapped as soon as possible.
The Great East Japan Earthquake was a reminder that accurate and timely earthquake prediction is not yet possible. New legislation is needed to focus policy efforts on responding effectively when quakes occur by swiftly bringing relief supplies to disaster-hit areas.
(The Nikkei, March 19 morning edition)