Thursday, August 11, 2011

Climate Change Implications for Disaster Risk Management in Japan

Climate Change Implications for Disaster Risk Management in Japan: A Case Study on Perceptions of Risk Management Personnel and Communities in Saijo City


This paper reviews climate change impacts and existing disaster risk management system in Japan and offers results of a structured questionnaire survey of the community leaders and disaster risk management personnel of Saijo city of Japan that assesses their perceptions about dealing with the extreme disasters by the existing disaster risk reduction systems. This study was inspired by the record number of typhoon landfall that has surprised the local government and communities in 2004. While unearthing the hidden vulnerabilities in cities like Saijo, this event has loosened the confidence of local communities on the disaster risk reduction systems. From the study, we conclude that the existing disaster risk management systems needs further fillip and that the proactive community involvement in disaster risk reduction is still in nascent stages. Associating with the scientific community, involving the local communities (including the elderly), enhancing the redundancy in disaster risk management systems, inculcating strategic thinking and micro-level planning, conducting vulnerability assessments by considering the special circumstances including resource constraints of small cities, and better policy coordination across the administrative hierarchy are some important considerations for dealing with the uncertainty brought by the extreme events.
Key words: Japan, climate change, uncertainty, perception, heavy rainfall, community participation, disaster risk management

Suggested citation: 
Prabhakar, S.V.R.K., Y. Iwata, R. Shaw, J. Soulakova, and Y. Takeyuchi. 2012. Climate Change Implications for Disaster Risk Management in Japan: A Case Study on Perceptions of Risk Management Personnel and Communities in Saijo City. Environmental Hazards [under print].

Extended summary and conclusions

From the review presented in this paper, it is clear that there is a growing evidence of the increasing impacts of climate change. The impacts in Japan in general and in the study location of Saijo city in particular are clear in terms of increasing incidences of heavy rainfall events. With the climate projections suggesting an even further increase in the number of such events, this signifies the need for more detailed strategic planning on the part of the governments and other stakeholders including communities. There is a need to uncover hidden vulnerabilities as extreme events and uncertainty increases over time. This call for holistic and inclusive developmental and risk reduction planning. Due to the low income of small cities (‘Chio toshi’), governments are more constrained to put in place effective risk reduction measures. The aged population and concentration of handicapped persons could even exacerbate the impacts of climate change. For example, the higher vulnerability could make climatic events turn worse while the hazard intensities also increase over the years. There is a need for special consideration of such cities while designing risk reduction measures at the prefecture and national levels.
As the subject of disaster management is rest with the local city governments, appropriate capacity building programs facilitated by the national governments by taking the local special circumstances of these cities becomes important. Enhanced preparedness by considering the perceptions of the communities is called for so that the implemented disaster risk reduction measures gains widespread public acceptance, as we see this point coming out very strongly in this paper. For example, involvement of elderly and those who have lived in the city for longer time have shown better memory about the past experiences those could be useful in designing the local disaster risk reduction plans. More micro-level hazard, risk and vulnerability assessments are needed for the city governments to enable people to be aware of their vulnerabilities and help them prepare. Where capacities of city governments are low, the linkages with the adjacent well-to-do cities and prefecture gain importance by reducing the time taken in initiating response and relief actions at the national level. This is more important in countries like Japan where much of the power is delegated to the local governments. Past disasters in Japan have highlighted the failure of national governments in initiating response and relief operations as these functions were fully delegated to the city level governments. While decentralization is important, it should be done in a phased manner accompanied with steady improvement in capacities of local governments such that they can take full advantage of being independent in taking decisions.
Community involvement in disaster risk reduction and coordination among the stakeholders needs to be improved in order to deal with the uncertain risks emanating out of climate change. Such capacity building measures needs to keep in mind the demography of the population of interest. This is important on two counts. Enhancing the disaster preparedness and response capacity of the communities, in addition to working on disaster mitigation, would help communities to be prepared for sudden surprises. Similarly, better coordination by establishing appropriate standard operational procedures would help various DRM agencies to deal with uncertain events. Redundancy in DRM system could help in reducing uncertain risks, for example. Redundancy in telecommunications would help the response machinery to fall back on other means of communication in the event that regular communication channels become defunct. It is evident from this paper that many of the DRM systems were developed in response to disaster events rather than due to the perception of imminent risk. This brings out the need for strategic thinking among the DRM community.
Local wisdom plays an important role in climate change risk reduction. This wisdom can come from relatively older members of the community who have lived in a particular locality for a long duration. Due to the wide gap between age groups in cities like Saijo, challenges typical of the ‘generation gap’ could create difference of opinion as observed in this study. Hence it is important to involve the old members of the community while preparing and implementing any DRM strategy as they are more likely to observe the climate change, as our study has brought out. As a result, their opinion could enhance the effectiveness of an initiative taken by the city government. Due to their familiarity with the local social and cultural characteristics, older members of the community could also be able to convince the other community members on important decisions related to climate change risk reduction. Similarly, the study also has brought out the influence of occupation on what one perceives. The community leaders who are more associated with agriculture, an occupation that is directly influenced by the climate and its change, are more prone to observe changes in the climate than others. Hence, it is relatively easy for the local governments and risk reduction personnel to obtain the consensus of those communities working in climate-risk prone occupations than those working in other occupations. Necessity for capacity building of the city government, in terms of financial and human resources was also raised as an important issue by the government officers who are responsible for disaster management. This corroborates with the fact that the small cities in Japan are resource starved due to outward migration of young generation and subsequent poor development of industries which are important source of income for the city governments. As the disaster management is the function of city governments, any decentralization of powers to city governments should commensurate with appropriate support from the prefecture and national governments. 
The study also brought out that those community leaders who could observe climate change saw existing disaster management systems in effective. As the climate change risks are uncertain, a certain amount of strategic thinking and vision at the local level would be helpful in developing long-term risk reduction strategies. This can be brought about by a better collaboration between the scientific community and the local level DRM functionaries. The majority of the interviewed DRM personnel indicated the lack of clear evidence of climate change impacts in their location, which emphasizes the need to develop tools and techniques that will help identify the local impacts of climate change so that appropriate steps could be taken to address the climate change related risks. Such a tool should also be able to bring long-term perspective thinking and planning to the risk reduction community at the city level. We also have seen that simple tools such as vulnerability maps could win the confidence of community leaders, as these maps could visually inform them about vulnerabilities and help them translate the same into action. Better policy coordination and regular hazard risk assessments can serve as important tools in dealing with the uncertainty. The regular revision of hazard maps could give a timely perspective of change in the hazard risk profile of the region and could give appropriate direction to the local and regional governments in risk reduction planning. 

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