‘Disaster University’ Studies Ways to Minimize Death and Destruction in Asia-Pacific

With 800,000 fatalities from natural calamities in the past decade in Asia alone, answers are needed fast

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Mark Edward Harris / Getty Images

The damage in the aftermath of the earthquake and the tsunami that hit the northeast coast of the Japanese main island of Honshu on March 11, 2011

In the critical moments of a catastrophe, old wisdom can be as vital as new technology. After a massive tsunami heaved onto Japan’s northeastern coast on March 11, 2011, few things were left standing in the fishing village of Minami-sanriku. Despite the warnings blasted over the town’s loudspeakers, hundreds were killed in neighborhoods that the waves flattened in minutes. Cars were twisted and tossed into trees. But as the waters receded, the ancient Daiou temple, perched on a hill above town, was almost unharmed. Centuries earlier, monks had moved their place of worship to higher ground after a tsunami swept through the area, managing to preserve their legacy — and creating a refuge for homeless villagers generations later.

Coping with the earth’s destructive forces has always been part of the human experience, but it seems to be an ever-bigger job these days. The number of reported natural disasters has steadily risen worldwide since 1980, and Asia-Pacific has been hardest hit. In the past 10 years, a person in Asia was nearly 30 times more likely to be affected by a natural disaster than somebody in Europe or the U.S. During that time, some 800,000 people were killed in the tsunamis, earthquakes and storms in the region.

Now academics from the Asia-Pacific region have developed a project dubbed Disaster University, a global forum to share aspects of disaster preparation and management, from meteorology to urban planning to economics. “Generally speaking, hazards don’t kill people — it’s the building that collapses on them,” says Karl Kim, executive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii.

(PHOTOS: After the Storm: Post-Tsunami Japan by Kishin Shinoyama)

In the first phase of the USAID-funded initiative, faculty from several Indonesian universities took classes at the University of Hawaii in areas like humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery. Next year, academics from Hawaii will visit Indonesia to observe their programs. Hawaii and Indonesia initially teamed up because their island environments share similar hazards — volcanoes, tsunamis and rising sea levels among them — but the program also has partners in Thailand, Japan and several Pacific island nations.

That Asia’s developing nations are changing faster than most parts of the world is both a blessing and a curse. Rapid urbanization has meant that when an earthquake hits an Asian city today, it’s likely to hurt exponentially more people than it would have 20 years ago.

The upside is that democratization and greater access to media mean people are pushing their governments to respond better to crises.

“People are much more aware now,” says G. Shabbir Cheema, director of the Asia-Pacific Governance and Democracy Initiative at the East-West Center in Honolulu. “They are demanding better services.”

(PHOTOS: Asia’s Tsunami: Indonesia)

To help governments meet those demands, the curriculum of Disaster University builds on a basic tenet: sharing information saves lives. When the Asian tsunami hit in December 2004, Indonesia, the country closest to the earthquake’s epicenter, did not have a robust warning system in place. Nearly a quarter of a million people were killed, most of them in Indonesia. Since then, says Wilmar Salim, chair of the urban-planning graduate program at the Bandung Institute of Technology, the government has installed a buoy system offshore with help from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii, among others, and has created evacuation routes in vulnerable cities.

But academics also need to gather intel from each other and the people who have dealt with natural crises for generations, says Kim. Eventually, the program will be running workshops in disaster-prone communities to learn from their strategies. In the aftermath of a cyclone, for instance, using local materials and building techniques to rebuild may be faster than having an international organization ship in temporary housing. Involving nongovernmental groups that have been present in remote communities is also important in bridging the gap between the authorities and citizens in a disaster. “Often there are not resources for the government to do everything,” says Kim. If civil society, NGOs and local government can work together, “they have a better chance of succeeding.”

Building an Asia that is more resilient to natural shocks is in everyone’s interest. The financial impact of such calamities — wherever they are — is growing alongside their incidence. Increased trade means Asia and its trading partners are particularly exposed when production gets interrupted, not least because Asian countries produce a lot of intermediate products that, when production gets interrupted, affect customers up and down the supply chain. For some weeks after March 2011, production of auto and electrical components in Japan plunged, slowing down output in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, according to the U.N. The leaders of developing economies are not used to putting sustainable planning ahead of growth. But as more disasters strike, more officials are seeing how years of investment can be wiped out in one day. “People are coming around to the idea,” Kim says. That’s because there’s no time to lose.

(MORE: The Top 10 Deadliest Earthquakes)