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Speech: Building resilience: Lessons from Post-tsunami Japan

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Kristalina Georgieva
Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response

Japanese week by Friends of Europe / Brussels

11 March 2013

Dear Excellencies,

The topic today is one that, for as long as I live, will be in my heart.

It is the great East Japan earthquake, and what Japan and the rest of the world have learned and continue to learn from it.

I stand in front of you and the memories that flash through my mind are the port of Kita Ibaraki, and the clock that stood still at 14:46 when the tsunami hit the Japanese coast.

There were cars and boats, a kilometer inland, on top of houses.

There were people sleeping in schools and in sport halls.

Among the 300,000 Japanese who had to be evacuated, there were children and elderly. I remember the face of a ninety-year-old woman, who had lost everything, but not the care of her neighbours.

The Governor of Ibaraki Prefecture and I were standing among men and women, anxious to hear whether it was safe for their children to play outside, in the town of Kita Ibaraki, which is only 70 Kilometers from Fukushima power plant that was so dangerous for so many.

As we are remembering what happened two years ago, I would like today to share with you the immediate operational lessons learned from this tragedy, the advocacy that it has brought, the broad policy lessons it inspired, and how it relates to international efforts on resilience.

1 . Operational lessons

Within minutes of the earthquake and Tsunami, my services contacted Ambassador Shiojiri's predecessor, Ambassador Odano. He told us that Member States and EU institutions' assistance had to be fully coordinated to be meaningful. Sometimes help can be harmful if not done well. As the best prepared country in the world was overwhelmed, we had to ensure that we would be able to deliver the goods ourselves – and that was the first operational lesson. So we sent a fifteen-member coordination team in Japan to organize the logistics of seven cargo planes of European in-kind assistance, 400 tons of blankets, mattresses, protection gear, boots, gloves, etc.

In this coordination, a second operational lesson we learned was that we should not make assumptions about what exactly is necessary. We have to be there on the ground and find out ourselves. For example, one thing that we did not expect to be necessary was dosimeters - simple devices measuring radioactivity, because Japan is a highly sophisticated society. Yet, at that moment in time, there was an enormous need for simple devices to reassure the public about radioactivity, the number one concern of the people in the area. These monitors, which we had during our visit, were very simple to use, and could be shown to women and men who wanted to know if it was safe for their children to be outside. So we sent 50 dosimeters so that each of the mayors of Ibaraki's Prefectures could walk among people and show what the conditions were: this had an enormous positive psychological impact.

2 . Advocacy

We drew many other operational lessons, which showed us how solidarity was even more important now than before. Countries, rich and poor, can be brought on their knees by the forces of nature, and this is happening more frequently, and in a more severe way.

In my three years as Commissioner, I have seen the results of the Haiti earthquake, of the Chili earthquake. We had floods in Australia, we had horrendous droughts hitting the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel region – twice ! But these disasters that you have heard about represent only 9% of the disasters that are happening on this planet. These are the mega-disasters, but 91% of the disasters remain silent. We don't know about them, and yet, they devastate people and communities. Just to give you a couple of examples, there not much news about Ebola outbreak in Uganda or the devastating winter in Mongolia, killing people, animals and the local economy?

This means that we have to be much more forceful in advocacy efforts to integrate disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction in everything we do. International advocacy is crucial to transform behaviour because we need a full mindset change in this new world of more frequent and more devastating disasters. I want here to pay tribute to Japan for being at the forefront of this international advocacy, hosting a range of meetings including a Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. During the World Bank and IMF annual meetings in Japan last year, there was a debate during which I was on a panel with the Managing Director of the IMF, Mme Lagarde, and the President of the World Bank. This showed how disaster risk reduction had become an issued that was being mainstreamed by the two most important international financial institutions. And it also showed the major role Japan played in this advocacy drive.

3 . Policy change

What happened two years ago in Japan made it clear to all that we must strive for transformative policies that make our societies truly resilient societies. We do this in the EU and we cooperate very closely with Japan, and more broadly with Asia, because Asia is the region most frequently visited by disasters.

This cooperation with Asia, and what we have learned from Japan, has certainly been factored in our two major policy initiatives. Let me start with the new legislation proposal on civil protection, in which there are 4 critical elements. First, we need to understand the risks much better, in order to be able to manage them well. Second, we have to be able to bring together skills and capabilities presents in Europe. Third, we have to be able to work in a much more flexible manner to deploy these skills and capabilities when a disaster strikes at home or overseas. Fourth, we must be able to provide incentives to change behavior. Incentives in terms what we can provide together – in other words ways to mobilize what is in Europe. We also have to send signal to households and businesses – for example we should see how our insurance industry performs in the face of disasters.

The other major policy initiative is on resilience and has been prepared together with Commissioner Pielbags. What it does is very simple: it puts resilience at the centre of everything we do for the most disaster-prone and fragile countries: from how we make agriculture more resilient to droughts, how we make communities alert so they can react faster to threats, to how to get the health authorities to prevent diseases that are related to sudden disasters. We are also focusing on the most vulnerable people: I learned as a Humanitarian Commissioner that in every tragedy on this planet 80% of the victims come from the 20% poorest most vulnerable people. They are the children, they are the elderly, they are the handicapped.

4 . International efforts on resilience

This is present in our actual work on resilience. We have made coordinated efforts, including on funding, in the Horn of Africa with the so-called SHARE initiative (Supporting the Horn of Africa Resilience), and for the Sahel region, with AGIR Sahel (Alliance Globale pour l'Initiative Résilience au Sahel). We are also changing our programming in key disaster-prone countries like Haiti.

In our international cooperation with especially vulnerable regions like Asia, we have brought disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction upfront. After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, Japan took the lead on the Hyogo Framework for Action. Since 2005, 168 UN Member States are aligned on that framework, and I am absolutely sure that now, with the renewed commitment to resilience in Japan, we will see a similar leadership on the post-Hyogo Framework, which Japan has already offered to host. We will be there, hand in hand with Japan.

I am committed to keep increasing awareness on resilience. Resilience is not an easy concept to sell. As a Commissioner, it is much easier for me to raise money to respond to a disaster, especially the mega-disasters rather than the silent one. Yet, to raise attention and funding for resilience is much harder, because it is "the dog that does not bark".

Let me illustrate that: I was in in Chad last February, to make sure that we would invest enough in assistance to fight a terrible drought in the country. A BBC reporter put his camera in front of me and asked me: "'Commissioner, how can you guarantee that I will not be back in June to film starving children?". I replied that I would guarantee it because we were providing assistance and investing in resilience in February rather than waiting for June. Then, I asked him: "'How can you guarantee that if there are no starving children, you will come in June to film that we have avoided a catastrophy?"

So, looking at the future, we have to make sure that the dog that doesn't bark is nevertheless heard loud and clear. In this regard, Japan is playing a major policy and advocacy role, including when remembering those who died two years ago.

Last year, for the first anniversary, I posted some Haikus in box set-up by the Japanese Embassy. I would like to do the same today. The haiku I would like to share with you on the second anniversary reads like this:

'Deep within our hearts

We remember your sorrows

And what fell apart

Today we all pray

For a brighter tomorrow

Pain brings a new start'