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Japan: Pillars of Resilience

Prone to typhoons, floods, and earthquakes, Japan has developed unique skills in coping with natural disasters. With deep expertise in everything from physical infrastructure to rapid recovery, the country has made disaster-proofing into an exact science.


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"It was an ‘All Japan’ team effort. Everyone involved was highly motivated"

Yutaka Okuda, KIX

On September 5, 2018, the day after Typhoon Jebi barreled into Osaka Bay, Yutaka Okuda went to work by boat. He had no choice. Road and rail access to Kansai International Airport (KIX), the offshore airport where he is technical department manager, was cut off after a tanker crashed into the bridge linking it to the mainland.

The bridge was not the only casualty. High waves whipped up by the 200kph winds had overtopped the sea wall, flooding one of the two terminals and the baggage claim area, and knocking out the electricity. Wind had also torn off the cargo warehouse’s roof, while one of the two runways was underwater. “When I saw the damage, I thought we’d need several months to recover,” Okuda recalls. “The damage was on a scale we’d never experienced before.”

High-speed recovery

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Okuda and his team camped out in their offices, determined to get the airport running again as fast as possible. After achieving partial reopening on September 7, they restored full service by September 21, just 17 days after the typhoon hit. Once again, tens of thousands of domestic and international passengers are now using the airport on a daily basis.

Even for a country famous for bouncing back fast, this was a remarkable feat. Okuda attributes the rapid recovery to two factors: first, deep internal expertise and second, broad external collaboration. Okuda himself has worked at KIX since before its 1994 opening, meaning that he and the airport staff know the facility and its equipment so well that they could assess the damage and figure out remedies quickly. Meanwhile, the airport’s close relationships with the almost 200 private-sector companies that supply and maintain its infrastructure also played a role. “When we needed help, we knew exactly who to call,” he says. “All the companies we work with made getting the airport running again their top priority.”

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The government also provided support sending 10 pump trucks to remove water from the runway. Other Japanese airports lent special sweeper vehicles to clear the runways of rubbish and donated replacement valves for the under-apron plane-refueling system. “It was an ‘All Japan’ team effort,” says Okuda proudly. “Everyone involved was highly motivated and wanted the airport to recuperate fast. That gave me tremendous confidence.”

With the airport up and running at full capacity again, Okuda is now focused on devising strategies to reinforce its long-term resilience against future extreme weather events. Solutions under consideration include raising the height of the seawall, isolating key electrical equipment behind submarine doors and barriers, and acquiring more pumps.

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Flooding: A global problem

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Now that global warming is causing ever more extreme weather events, artificial islands are not the only places at increased flood risk. In the traditionally temperate UK, for instance, the government listed flooding as a major threat for the first time in the 2017 edition of National Risk Register for Civil Emergencies. And with good reason. According to the UK’s Met Office, nine of the 17 record-breaking rainfall months or seasons since 1910 have occurred since 2000, with the winter of 2013–2014 the wettest winter for 250 years, and December 2015 the wettest month ever recorded. In both cases, thousands of homes were flooded.

The risk of floods is exacerbated by urban sprawl. Think of Hurricane Harvey, which unleashed eight days of rain on Houston, Texas in August 2017 and damaged more than 300,000 structures at a cost of $125 billion. According to a report in Nature, the city’s risk of extreme flooding was 21 times greater due to urbanisation. Not only had man-made structures created “surface roughness” that “snagged” the hurricane and held it in place, but the increase of impervious pavements and roads prevented heavy rainfall from being absorbed into the ground.

Anticipating disasters

Tokyo has taken active steps to reduce flood risk. As the city’s population grew in the twentieth century, the Naka and Ayase River Basins to the south of Tokyo saw rapid suburban expansion accompanied by a dramatic change in the land utilisation profile. Between 1955 and 2010, built-up areas’ share of total land use there rose from 5% to 52%, while rice paddies and fields’ share declined from 68% to just 33%. The local topography did not help matters: not only is the area bowl-shaped—meaning that excess rainwater tends to stay put—but it contains five rivers with unusually low gradients—meaning that water is slow to drain into the sea.

With serious floods becoming routine in the 1980s and 1990s, Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) decided that radical measures were needed to protect the 3.3 million people living in the suburban area. It took things to the next level—literally.

"This facility is the epitome of Japan’s cutting-edge civil engineering technology"

Masaki Takahashi, MOUDC

The MLIT had already built several above-ground river discharge ducts to channel the area’s flood waters when it started constructing an underground flood control channel in 1993. Consisting of five shafts that collect runoff from five rivers, direct it along a subterranean tunnel, then pump it up into another river and thence to the sea, the Tokyo Flood Control Channel—or Metropolitan Outer Area Underground Discharge Channel (MOUDC) as it is officially known—cost nearly $3 billion and took 13 years, from 1993 to 2006, to build.

The project is a showcase of Japan’s most cutting-edge civil engineering technology. At 6.3km, the tunnel is the world’s longest underground river; each of the five shafts is big enough to accommodate a space shuttle; and the awe-inspiring surge tank which stabilises the water flow has even become a hit on Instagram and other social media. But however grand the structure may be, the decision to build underground was actually taken for sound economic reasons. “Constructing this sort of system above ground is expensive,” explains Masaki Takahashi, the facility chief. “Negotiating and acquiring land takes time and money. This underground channel, which follows the path of a national road, is actually a cost-effective solution.”

Infrastructure that pays its way

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The numbers prove Takahashi’s point. Consider: When just under 19 centimetres of rain fell in a 48-hour period in 1991 before the channel was built, over 31,000 houses suffered flood damage. When a similar amount of rain fell in the same timeframe in 2017, that number was down to just 43. The MLIT estimates that in the first 10 years since its 2006 completion, the channel averted approximately $930 million of property damage—a figure equivalent to almost 44% of its construction costs. The awareness that floods are no longer a danger is also boosting the local economy. “Kasukabe, a town in the river basin, has recently attracted new businesses like shopping malls and logistics centers,” Takahashi says. “Part of its pitch to the business community is being safe from flood damage.”

Among the half million tourists who have now visited the Tokyo Flood Control Channel are overseas government officials, embassy staff and civil engineers, the majority of whom come from flood-prone Southeast Asia and the lower-lying northern European countries like Germany and the Netherland. All are eager to take home with them the lesson of how investing in physical infrastructure can significantly reduce disaster risk.

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Advanced meteorological know-how

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"We want to make weather guidance more quantitative and reliable"

Kunio Akatsu, JICA

Of course, constructing elaborate physical infrastructure can never be a universal solution to the problem of flooding. Floods will inevitably occur somewhere as a residual disaster risk. In that case, the goal should be to minimise the danger by providing early warnings that enable people in the affected areas to take the necessary precautions.

This requires the ability to forecast accurately where storms and typhoons will strike and how much rain they will produce. Here again Japan stands in the vanguard. Anyone who has visited the country will have been struck by the unusually detailed weather forecasts on television, which predict rainfall not in the normal and somewhat vague terms of intensity (heavy, light, etc.), but in terms of numbers of millimetres. This precise quantitative precipitation estimation (QPE) is the result of applying an algorithm to combined observation data from multiple equipment sources, ranging from weather radar and weather satellites—both particularly important for short-range forecasting of violent weather phenomena—to automatic weather stations. With a rainy season in June and a typhoon season in September, Japan needs precise levels of forecasting to ensure it is ready for disaster.

Technology plus skills

Two elements go into achieving this level of precision: First, there is hardware in the form of high-quality weather observation equipment, then there are soft skills in the form of the meteorological know-how to extract and interpret data with extreme accuracy. Japan actively shares the meteorological know-how it has developed with other countries worldwide.

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"The quality of weather forecasts in Vietnam is being improved in cooperation with Japan"

Nguyen Vinh Thu, VMHA

“In developing countries, donating sophisticated observation equipment like weather radar systems can only ever be a first step. The equipment will not deliver its full benefits unless it is properly operated and the data correctly analysed,” explains Kunio Akatsu, Senior Adviser at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Radar operators, for example, need to be trained to distinguish between rain and things that merely look like rain on the radar screen, such as tall sea waves, hills, even wind turbines. They also need to learn how to combine different data sets from weather radar and automated weather observation stations in order to develop those all-important quantitative precipitation estimates. “In short-range forecasting, meteorologists in developing countries can rely too much on ‘rules of thumb’ and ‘experience’,” says Akatsu. “We want to help make weather guidance more quantitative and reliable based on traceable observation data and the numerical weather prediction outputs of the Japan Meteorological Agency so that countries can improve their meteorological services.”

"Our contribution to disaster risk reduction around the world is based on Japan's experience."

Masahiro Ueki, JICA

Vietnam is a case in point. The Vietnam Meteorological and Hydrological Administration (VMHA) recently took delivery of two Japanese weather radar systems under grant aid. These radars play an indispensable role in providing short-range forecasts of weather phenomena like tornados and typhoons that can cause strong winds and flash floods. “The quality of weather forecasts in Vietnam is being improved as a result. The assessments of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) clearly demonstrate this,” states Nguyen Vinh Thu, project manager at the VMHA.

The improved data of the beneficiary countries also helps improve the WMO Integrated Global Observing System, which pulls together observation data from all around the world into a single, coherent framework used by countries everywhere to make forecasts. In other words, when Japan helps other countries improve their meteorological data, a virtuous circle is set in motion that benefits Japan and all other countries.

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Commitment born of experience

Masahiro Ueki, a JICA Disaster Reduction Team director, traces Japan’s profound commitment to disaster mitigation back to Typhoon Vera in 1959. “Five thousand people in central Japan fell victim to Typhoon Vera,” he says. “From the 1960s to 70s, Japan consistently spent 5% to 8% of its national budget on disaster risk reduction. The Japanese figures show that a decline in flooded areas leads to a rise in GDP. Our contribution to disaster risk reduction around the world is based on Japan’s experience.”

Resilience has many constituent parts as illustrated by the experience of Kansai International Airport and the positive impacts of the Tokyo Flood Control Channel and Japan’s meteorological expertise. In having all the pillars of resilience in place, Japan is a living case study in disaster-preparedness.