Managing Complex Emergencies in Complex Times – Lessons from Japan

Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant 1975. Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, Japan

By Andrea Rezzonico

Anticipating and preparing for complex and simultaneous emergencies is critical as we move further into the 21st century. The coming decades will be characterized by significant disruptors including climate change, biological hazards, natural disasters, rapid technological change, growing geopolitical tensions, an increase in fragile states, and persistent economic shocks. These issues will not exist independently of each other – they will intersect and very possibly lead to cascading effects that strain entire systems. 

Over the last several years, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) has investigated this rising convergence of security risks, breaking down silos, pulling threads through previously unlinked issue sets, and establishing pathways along the way. This work, as well as lessons from the extraordinarily destabilizing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, has underscored that current emergency preparedness programs do not sufficiently consider how crises can overlap in time or cascade from one into another. A particularly harrowing example of this was Japan’s horrific Triple Disaster of 2011. The event serves as a warning, but Japan’s actions since then also serve as a potential model for the world on managing complex crises, including the one we’re in at the moment. Japan learned (and is arguably still learning) from the crisis, and so can we.  

It is important to note that the country is currently facing criticism for its crisis management. It was recently announced that Japan will be releasing treated cooling water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant into the Pacific Ocean in two years time. The water contains tritium and other radionuclides in concentrations considered safe by most international standards but that some, including many people in the affected region, do not consider to be sufficient to protect the safety of local populations or the ocean ecosystem on which many depend for livelihoods. After years of deliberation, a government panel decided that the controversial method was the most feasible option. As expected,  many local and regional communities are vehemently opposing the strategy, citing the unknown long term effects of water with these radioactivity levels on the marine ecosystem. The Japanese government was confronted with an incredibly difficult decision, given uncertainty about the impacts of the released water on the marine ecosystem — one that spotlights the importance of preparing for and/or preventing these disasters in an effort to reduce the odds needing to later manage their devastating consequences. 

March 11, 2021 marked the 10-year anniversary of the Triple Disaster (massive earthquake, tsunami, and resulting emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station), an extremely destructive, physical, psychological, and cultural disaster. The Triple Disaster led to major shifts in government responsibilities in Japan – including a new national security council and nuclear regulatory agency – in order to better anticipate and respond to future emergencies. A Japanese NGO released a report highlighting the 10 lessons learned from  the Fukushima disaster, and although the document is heavily focused on nuclear energy, there are also general threads applicable to all emergencies. Along similar lines, Japan’s recent White Paper on Disaster Management included a section titled ‘Strategy for Enhancing the Synergy between Climate Action and Disaster Risk Reduction,’ a clear nod to tackling converging issues.

Fast forward to 2021 and Japan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates how adept the country has become at handling crises – even though it is home to the largest urban area in the world – Tokyo and its surrounding areas. Early detection, a highly publicized campaign to avoid the three C’s—closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings—contact tracing and more have contributed to its success.  Although early reports criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic in its nascent stage, the country quickly course-corrected and adapted to the crisis. So much so, that during the UN General Assembly in September 2020, Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga communicated his government’s desire to  “proactively lead” on a number of international Covid-19 recovery efforts.

Japan has had to address incredibly unique, complex, and simultaneous emergencies in recent decades – weathering related impacts on its economy, development, and sociopolitical well-being. The island nation must grapple with a range of cataclysmic natural disasters such as tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, flooding, and typhoons. It is also highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As a result, Japan has extensive experience dealing with multiple pressure points at once, and how they can combine to create devastating effects. The government places a significant emphasis on the reinforcement of disaster prevention systems, adaptive construction methods, strong emergency measures/ recovery operations, and other comprehensive programs. Thus, it has actively drawn lessons from its experiences and has subsequently become a global leader in conveying these lessons to the rest of the world – Even if that also includes a ‘what not to do,’ as we are seeing 

Crisis response capabilities are an integral part of maintaining security and security across the globe. These capabilities contribute to a nation’s public image, stronger international alliances, and the prevention of graver instabilities. Considering the aforementioned pressures, we know that all nations will be increasingly required to handle these compounding crises. We have the foresight to anticipate these emergencies, and the US has the opportunity to improve in this area. Many lessons could be drawn from Japan — High level disaster preparedness exchanges already form part of key alliances, including between Washington and Tokyo, and could be further strengthened by complex crises scenarios. Government and private sector stakeholders could strengthen information sharing channels and springboard discussions regarding complex emergencies across regions. This could ultimately provide a blueprint of how other nations, including the US, could prepare for intersecting, simultaneous crises in the future. 

We are living in a world of complex converging risks that are very difficult to manage. However, lessons for managing these risks – such as Japan’s actions in the ten years since the Triple Disaster, including in response to the COVID-19 pandemic  – are all around us. Being open to learning from these experiences – including through international partnerships – will be of the utmost importance going forward.

Andrea Rezzonico is Deputy to the CEO and Deputy Director of the Converging Risks Lab at the Council on Strategic Risks


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