- Expert Brief
- CFR scholars provide expert analysis and commentary on international issues.
The photos and videos of the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami are devastating: freezing and emotionally numbed survivors huddling in makeshift shelters; crowds waiting for fresh food at stores; nuclear technicians struggling to avert a Chernobyl-style meltdown in the Fukushima reactors.
Though I cannot fathom the despair of the Japanese survivors, I have some idea of how they feel. In December 2004, I was in Bangkok and southern Thailand, working on a series of articles, when a massive tsunami hit the country’s west coast, along with other parts of South and Southeast Asia, killing over two hundred thousand people. I was far from the epicenter and unhurt, though when I wandered through southern Thailand in the tsunami’s aftermath, I saw scene after scene of devastation (TNR).
In studying the region’s recovery efforts, there are lessons for Japan’s leaders. To be sure, not all of them could help Japan: The creation of a better early-warning system across Asia, a result in part of the 2004 tsunami, still did not give many Japanese enough time to flee the rising wall of water. But some of the most important lessons from 2004 could be useful to Japan, a country far richer and better prepared than the nations hit hardest in 2004--Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, India, and Sri Lanka--as it tries to rebuild its economy and environment, and prepare better for the next disaster.
No. 1: Preserve Natural Barriers
In preparing for natural disasters, Japan, which lies along the "Ring of Fire" Pacific earthquake zone, has built a series of seawalls and other protections against earthquakes and tsunamis. Some of its regulations have proven priceless, like those that ensured that many taller buildings were built with earthquake-resistant standards. But Japan, which has a politically powerful construction industry, also has destroyed much of its natural coastlines, which could serve to impede the flow of high seas.
Construction along Thai beaches had destroyed natural mangrove forests and coral reefs off the coast. These reefs and forests serve as natural barriers against the tides and could have helped block the deadly waves, though they wouldn’t have stopped them. They also can help stop coastal erosion, keeping barriers against the sea in place. Since the 2004 tsunami, many of the countries in the region began to repair their coasts.
No. 2: Official Secrecy is Corrosive