Six years ago, Japan faced a paralysing triple disaster: a massive earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns that forced 470,000 people to evacuate from more than 80 towns, villages, and cities. While in some coastal cities, no-one was killed by waves that reached up to 60 feet; in others, up to ten percent of the population lost their lives.
I found these statistics intriguing, so a Japanese colleague and I set out to investigate how communities in the hardest hit areas reacted to these shocks and to understand why the mortality rate from the tsunami varied so tremendously. We studied more than 130 cities, towns and villages in Tohoku, looking at factors such as exposure to the ocean, seawall height, tsunami height, voting patterns, demographics, and social capital. We found that municipalities having higher levels of trust and interaction had lower mortality levels after we controlled for all of those factors.
The kind of social ties that mattered here were horizontal, between town residents. It was a surprising finding given that Japan has spent an enormous amount of money on physical infrastructure, such as seawalls, but invested very little in building social ties and cohesion as part of disaster preparedness strategies.
Based on interviews with survivors and a review of the data, we believe that communities with more ties, stronger interaction, and shared norms worked effectively to provide help to kin, family and neighbours. In many cases only 40 minutes separated the earthquake and the arrival of the tsunami. During that time, residents literally picked up and carried many elderly people out of vulnerable low-lying areas. In high-trust neighbourhoods, people knocked on doors of those who needed help and escorted them out of harm’s way.
How to build resilience
Our work on the Tohoku disasters reinforces past evidence about the importance of social networks and social capital in disaster recovery around the world. Climate change and other factors may be increasing risk of disasters globally, but there is good news from our findings, in the sense that there are practical steps that we can all take to reduce our vulnerability to these hazards.
Communities can build cohesion and trust in a variety of ways. First, residents can learn about their neighbours, who will serve as first responders during any crisis. Next, whole communities can seek to deepen interactions and trust by organizing sports days, parties, religious festivals, and other community events that build trust and reciprocity.
For example, San Francisco provides funds to local residents to hold NeighborFest, a local community party open to all. City planners and urban visionaries can learn to think like Jane Jacobs, who supported the concepts of 'living cities' and 'third spaces' - that is, places beyond work and home where we can socialize. By designing what advocates call “place-making public spaces”, such as pedestrian-friendly streets and public markets, they can reshape cities to enhance social interaction.
Finally, communities can increase volunteerism rates by rewarding people who volunteer their time, providing concrete benefits for their service. One way to do this is by developing community currencies that are accepted at local businesses. Another strategy is time banking, where participants earn credits for their volunteer hours and redeem them later for services from others.
As communities around the world face disasters more and more frequently, I hope that my research on Japan after the March 11 earthquake can provide guidance to residents facing diverse challenges. While physical infrastructure is important for mitigating disaster, communities should also invest time and effort in strengthening social ties and creating environments that encourage members to do so, as a key component of disaster preparedness activities.
This blog post is part of the SWVR 2018 project. To return to the SWVR 2018 web section click here.