How Japan is rebuilding communities after Tsunami…Lessons for tackling Keta tidal waves

tsunamiNatural disasters, particularly those caused by tidal waves, are common phenomena worldwide.

In Ghana, it has become a perennial problem. The eastern part of the country, most especially the Keta Municipality in the Volta Region, has always been affected by the rampaging waves.

Indeed, in April, strong waves hit the municipality, the fourth time this year, with hundreds of residents displaced and millions of property destroyed in most of the island communities.

As hundreds of houses and schools were submerged in floods, the residents were compelled to vacate their homes to live with families and friends in other towns as a temporary measure.

Those images from the Keta Municipality flashed through my mind as I travelled through the eastern coast of Japan, and saw the extent of destruction caused there by the world’s worst form of disasters, Tsunami.

The term, derived from the Japanese words tsu (harbour) and nami (wave) and first used  in the year 1897, refers to a catastrophic ocean wave usually caused by a submarine earthquake, an underwater or coastal landslide, or by the eruption of a volcano.

In simple terms, it is a very high, large wave in the ocean that is usually caused by an earthquake under the sea and that can cause great destruction when it reaches land.

According to records, one of the most destructive tsunamis in history took place on December 26, 2004, after an earthquake of magnitude 9.1 displaced the ocean floor off the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Two hours later, waves as high as 9 metres (30 feet) struck the eastern coasts of India and Sri Lanka, some 1,200 km (750 miles) away.

Within seven hours of the quake, waves washed ashore on the Horn of Africa, more than 3,000 km (1,800 miles) away on the other side of the Indian Ocean.

More than 200,000 people were killed, most of them on Sumatra but thousands of others in Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka and smaller numbers in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Maldives, Somalia, and other locations.



At exactly 2:46pm on Friday, March 11, 2011, a tsunami caused by an earthquake of a magnitude of 9.0 hit eastern Japan, most especially the Miyagi Prefecture, ravaging the city of Sendai and the other low-lying regions, as well as coastal areas in the prefectures of Iwate, Fukushima, Ibaraki, and Chiba, all in the Tohoku District. The waves measured as high as 10 metres (33 feet) and devastated an area covering 500 kilometres.

Thousands of lives were lost, and buildings were either washed away or destroyed, while farms were completely ravaged.

Although the records are incomplete as recovery operations are still ongoing, statistics as at May 31 this year, place the fatalities at 10,551, with 502 severely injured, 3,615 slightly injured and 1,236 still missing.

A total of 83,000 residential buildings collapsed, 155,131 partially collapsed, 224,195 were partially destroyed, 7,796 flooded, and 26,796 non-residential buildings destroyed.

As I passed through some of the areas, including HigashiMatsushima and Nobiru, the level of destruction I observed was unimaginable.

Statistics available indicate that 65 per cent of HigashiMatsushima was flooded (the highest rate in the disaster-stricken areas) and 1,110 people died with 24 still missing (representing three per cent of the population).

A total of 5,518 houses were completely washed away, 3,059 seriously damaged and 2,500 partially destroyed (constituting approximately 73 per cent of all housings), and 1,465 hectares out of the total agricultural land of 3,349 hectares flooded.



At Nobiru, a survivor, described as The Story Teller, narrated the harrowing story of how it all started.

According to him, a resident, a very elderly man, had the premonition that a tsunami would occur, and created three paths from his house in the valley into the surrounding hills.

He encouraged his neighbours to do same, in order to facilitate their escape should the tsunami happen, but just as it is recorded in the Bible in the story of Noah and the Ark, they mocked him, because there were a lot of breakwaters and embankments to prevent the waves from coming inland.

Only 70 people heeded his advice and followed him to the hills. Then the tsunami struck, and the breakwaters could not stop the waves which also broke through and destroyed the 10-metre embankments.

There was complete disaster. Those fortunate to have been rescued were, eventually, taken into the woods in the hills.

The destruction was extensive. A total of 510 of the locals were killed; eight fire-fighters died trying to close the water-gate; all buildings in the low-lying areas were washed away; pine trees collapsed and were carried away into the ocean; the rail lines were completely damaged causing a train to collapse, blocking the main road and vehicles which were stuck in the middle of the road were carried away.

There is no end to the story.



As I observed the havoc caused, however, I could not help being amazed at the people’s resolve and determination to rebuild.

With funding from the Central Government, and with leadership from the city authorities and active support from volunteers from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the people have embark on an excise not only to recover what is lost, but also reconstruct. They set two targets: Recovery (fukkyu) which aimed to retrieve and return what was lost to its former condition; and Reconstruction (fukko), working to make the communities better than they used to be.

A number of committees were set up for the various interest groups (farmers, fishermen, Junior High School students and their teachers, those living in the shelters etc) to discuss and plan their own recovery and reconstruction strategies.

The community action is yielding results. New sea defence embankments have been built and more are under construction; the roads have not only been reconstructed but also elevated; new settlements have been built on higher grounds.

As the residents in the affected low-lying areas willingly agreed to be relocated, the authorities began constructing new residential accommodation for them, and so far, public housings are being put up for 1,010 households, with 789 individual households completed and occupied.

Other social mitigating measures have also been introduced to assist those whose livelihoods were affected. The recovered lands (both farm and residential lands) have been processed and allocated to the farmers for cultivation. The entire area is thus, green, covered by rice plantations.

The fishermen are also receiving assistance to undertake their vocation and earn a living.



The resilience of the Japanese is overwhelming, and their determination not to give up in the face of challenges is worth emulating by all, especially Ghanaians.

The problems facing the people of the Keta Municipality, for instance, can be effectively tackled if we set ourselves to the task.

It requires the commitment of the central government and municipal authorities, backed by the understanding and support of the affected communities.

Ghana can surmount the problem caused by tidal waves if it draws lessons from the Japanese approach to handling the tsunami.

Jim MaCauley, Sendai, Japan

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