A window of opportunity


International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment

ISSN: 1759-5908

Article publication date: 19 July 2011



Haigh, R. and Amaratunga, D. (2011), "A window of opportunity", International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, Vol. 2 No. 2. https://doi.org/10.1108/ijdrbe.2011.43502baa.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

A window of opportunity

Article Type: Editorial From: International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, Volume 2, Issue 2

At the time of writing, Japan will soon be embarking on an extensive post-disaster reconstruction programme in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami. Over the past few weeks, much media attention has been focused on Japan, as it deals with the impact of the disaster. The affected areas are clearly in need of both emergency relief and long-term rebuilding. Thus, far, the emphasis has been on an emergency response and humanitarian relief, including rescue, shelter, food, and medicine. Unfortunately, much of this relief work has been delayed by the on-going radiation threat from the Fukushima nuclear plant. However, as the situation stabilises, the priorities can be expected to move toward re-establishing some type of social and economic order, which relies on a complex network of infrastructure lifeline systems, including roads, water supply, sewers, power grids, telecommunications, schools, hospitals, and civic buildings. The damage in Japan has disrupted production of automobiles, computer chips and a range of other goods, and could force prolonged shutdowns in key areas of the economy. Restoring the affected communities’ lifeline systems to an operational state will be at the heart of restoring social and economic organisation in the communities.

Although the coming weeks will focus upon reinstating and installing base-level infrastructure to quickly put affected communities back on track, it will be vital that reconstruction plans are not seen as a simple restoration of buildings and infrastructure to their conditions prior to the incident. Many of the coastal settlements hardest hit were already in long-term decline. Even before the earthquake, incomes in the worst affected prefectures of Miyagi and Iwate were 15-20 per cent below the national average, with higher unemployment and a population shrinking and ageing faster than the country as a whole. Although the region finds itself in a tragic situation, somewhat perversely, the post-disaster period provides a window of opportunity for the government to address vulnerabilities and generously fund reconstruction to reinvigorate economic development of the north east coast.

Based upon the experience of previous disasters, there are several features of this post-disaster period that can be capitalised upon. First, the disaster has destroyed much of the built environment that was improperly designed and vulnerable, creating a fresh start from which to address disaster risk. Furthermore, the experience gained during the disaster typically generates new knowledge, which brings various stakeholders together around a shared awareness of the nature of risk. The mistakes of previous development policies and strategies are exposed and can be addressed. Next and perhaps even more significantly, the political will and desire to act is almost certainly stronger than usual. Any interest in disaster risk reduction that had been forgotten or side-lined before the disaster, will suddenly gain renewed prominence in the recovery period. In a similar vein, the lack of resourcing for risk reduction, any presence of corruption and otherwise weak institutional structures that allowed a vulnerable built environment to be constructed will have been highlighted. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the post-disaster period often provides a level of resourcing that would be otherwise unattainable. If properly utilised – something that is by no means certain – this additional resource does afford a major opportunity to reduce vulnerability.

A significant advantage for Japan’s recovery is the capacity of its domestic construction industry to deliver more resilient buildings and infrastructure. In contrast to many other disaster affected regions, particularly those in developing economies, Japan has a highly capable construction sector. The country’s five largest contractors each have a turnover of £4.5 bn and together they account for 95 per cent of all major building works in Japan. They have a reputation for integrated teams of subcontractors, high levels of prefabrication and a military approach to logistical planning. These characteristics should be very useful in the months and years ahead.

Japan also has the benefit of considerable post-disaster reconstruction experience. Concrete has been Japan’s answer to many problems and especially that of the post-war reconstruction that followed the end of hostilities in August 1945. Likewise, after the western port city of Kobe was struck by an earthquake in 1995, a successful rebuilding effort involved consolidating plots of land to allow larger structures, and building new infrastructure, including an airport on artificial land in the harbour. Similarly, authorities will need to find new approaches to dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan’s north-eastern seaboard on March 11.

Readers of this journal will undoubtedly join the Editors in hoping that those responsible for the reconstruction in Japan, as in other countries recently affected by disaster, can take advantage of this opportunity, despite the tragic circumstances that have brought it about. Issue 2 of the second volume of the journal provides some insights that may well prove useful in helping those responsible to make better informed decisions in the reconstruction process.

Commencing the issue, Jacob Tyler and Amarjit Singh present the results of an innovative and collaborative effort among students and professionals from several fields including engineering, public health, business, planning, economics, and marketing to develop a multi-year assistance plan aimed at promoting a disaster-resilient and foreign-aid-independent community in rural Peru in the wake of the August 2007 Peru earthquake. This paper assesses community vulnerabilities exposed by the earthquake and provides conceptual solutions to mitigating the effects of future disasters.

The second and third papers highlight the importance of appropriate incentives for property owners to improve mitigation. Robert T. Burrus, Christopher F. Dumas, and J. Edward Graham contrast the behaviour of a USA homeowner exposed to hurricane risk with government policies designed to limit hurricane losses. They use mitigation costs, hurricane probabilities and insurance premiums for the US coastal property, to frame rational cost-minimizing choices for the homeowner. The results suggest that enormous costs suffered by the public and private sectors could have been avoided with greater mitigation by homeowners and highlight the need for financial incentives to support such mitigation. In a similar vein and also using hurricanes as an example, David V. Rosowsky systematically discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with rebuilding of the housing stock following a devastating natural disaster. The results suggest new economic models that can help move our communities toward greater resiliency and sustainability.

Addressing a very different context, but also looking at post-disaster housing reconstruction, Iftekhar Ahmed highlights the lack of a set of widely agreed guidelines for permanent housing reconstruction in developing countries. Ahmed presents an extensive literature review to indicate major challenges and shortcomings in the field, while also identifying some examples of good practice.

In the final research paper, Maximiliano E. Korstanje argues that poverty can be intellectualized not as a consequence of a disaster, but as a necessary prerequisite for it. His thesis is that poverty is a humanitarian disaster often intellectualized as cause of disaster, in order for liable actors not to assume their faults.

Two books reviews are included in the issue. David A. McEntire appraises Designing Resilience: Preparing for Extreme Events, which is edited by Louise Comfort, Arjen Boin, and Chris Demchak, while Korstanje considers Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle, written by Cass Susstein.

The issue also includes the journal’s first doctoral abstract, which is Roshani Palliyaguru’s study into the influence of integrating disaster risk reduction within post-disaster infrastructure reconstruction on socio-economic development. The editors hope this will be the first of many to be published in the journal and encourage those who have recently completed their doctoral studies to submit an abstract for future issues.

Finally, the issue concludes with news of two upcoming events in Southern Asia. The first announces the UNISDR Making Cities Resilient Campaign launch that will take place in Kandalama, Sri Lanka, later this year. The second announces the International Open Science Conference: Global Environmental Change Innovations and Challenges, to be held in Chennai, India, in 2012.

Richard Haigh, Dilanthi Amaratunga

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