When a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the Republic of Haiti just before 5p.m. on 12 January, 2010, the resulting devastation led to the deaths of more than 170,000 people, left more than 1 million homeless and affected the lives of more than 3 million, approximately a third of the population of the Caribbean nation.
In the aftermath of the most powerful earthquake to hit Haiti in two centuries, disaster relief and rescue teams poured into the shattered country, one of the world’s poorest, from across the globe. A significant portion of the international community’s efforts arrived in the shape of personnel from Japan, which as a natural disaster-prone nation itself, has built up an abundance of experience, knowledge and technology in the field of disaster relief.
A Japan Disaster Relief (JDR) Medical Team, personnel from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and units from the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) were all mobilized at various stages to provide emergency assistance to the Haitian people in their hour of need.
The JSDF, working in line with the peacekeeping operations (PKO) doctrine, cleared rubble from damaged and destroyed buildings off the roads, reopening crucial transport links, built makeshift camps and orphanages, as well as transporting survivors to safe locations and delivering emergency medical treatment. The JSDF was also engaged in the transport of those in need of urgent intensive medical care from Haiti to Miami.
From January 18, the JDR Medical Team, a 25-strong unit comprised of a team leader from MOFA, doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, began delivering medical care in the town of Leogane. The town, approximately 40km west of the capital Port au Prince, is located near the epicenter of the earthquake, and was therefore one of the hardest-hit areas.
With local authorities, infrastructure and supply chains devastated, the JDR Medical Team faced difficulties in securing logistics, supplies and even a safe working environment. As the security situation in Haiti remained precarious, the team had to rely on a Sri Lankan Peacekeeping Officer keeping permanent guard at the clinic and nearby Canadian forces to patrol its vicinity. It also cooperated with other foreign medical teams working nearby, including Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as American NGOs and Canadian medics. The JDR Medical Team had treated more than 500 patients by January 25, but began handing over operations on January 23 to a JSDF medical unit of more than 100 personnel, including 40 medical practitioners, which continued to provide care to nearly 3,000 people.
The following month, a JSDF unit joined peacekeeping operations under the auspices of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (UNSTAMIH). The JSDF remained active in the country, which was still struggling to recover from the devastation, until March 2013.
Meanwhile, as recovery efforts continued, Japan shifted its focus to the cholera outbreak that killed thousands and made hundreds of thousands ill in the country during the post-disaster chaos. In a joint $12 million project with UNICEF, it set about addressing the issues of sanitation, hygiene, water and education, which would provide relief from the disease in both the short and long term. A 40-kilometer (25-mile) pipe and huge water tank helped deliver clean and drinkable water straight from the tap, which was rarely available locally even before the disaster. In addition, an education program in schools made children recognize the importance of hygiene in preventing cholera and other diseases.
Including longer-term projects across areas as diverse as infrastructure, agriculture, education, reconstruction of public buildings, health and future disaster mitigation, the Japanese government provided more than half a billion dollars in assistance.
The Japan Disaster Relief Rescue Team holds a “heavy” classification in accordance with International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) guidelines. This classification, the highest in the system, indicates the capability to engage in continuous relief operations around the clock for 10 days at two separate worksites simultaneously and to coordinate other international rescue teams. (Government of Japan)
A little more than a year after the Haiti earthquake, Japan’s northeast coast suffered horrendous damage and loss of life at the hands of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami on March 11, 2011. The experience accumulated in dealing with disasters around the globe was put to work in the home country of Japan’s rescue and relief teams, which gained further skills in working under demanding conditions on a mass scale. Those skills and knowledge were once again invaluable when another huge earthquake, this time of magnitude 7.1, hit central Mexico on the afternoon of September 19, 2017, killing hundreds.
Having received a request from Mexico’s government, a JDR Team of 72 highly-trained rescue personnel from the National Police Agency, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, the Japan Coast Guard and JICA, a team leader from the MOFA, as well as four rescue dogs, was immediately dispatched to help with the rescue and recovery operations in the crucial first 72 hours. The JDR personnel are on standby to be able to leave within 24 hours of being notified by the MOFA, and its contingent was the largest among those sent from overseas. The JDR team is rated at the highest level according to the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) guidelines, meaning they are cleared to engage in continuous relief operations around the clock for 10 days at two separate worksites simultaneously and to coordinate between local government and other international rescue teams for effective operations.
When dispatched to a disaster-stricken country, the fully-equipped self-sufficient JDR team aims not to place any burden on the country with the need for transport, food, shelter, or anything else necessary for their operations. Furthermore, in Mexico, in addition to the logistic support provided by the Embassy of Japan in Mexico and the JICA Mexico Office, Japanese companies and the Nichiboku Kyokai (Mexican Japanese Association) also provided assistance, including an operational base.
The JDR Rescue team worked alongside its Mexican counterparts in conducting joint search and rescue operations around the clock for three days at three heavily-affected worksites in the center of Mexico City, the national capital, where many buildings had collapsed.
In developing countries, it is investment in risk reduction measures before disasters strike that forms the foundation for realizing sustainable development. Risk reduction encompasses a range of measures, such as disaster drills and warning systems, but also a broader approach, including safe infrastructure, health and education. This broader approach has underpinned Japan’s overseas development assistance programs for more than half a century. That is in part because Japan found these were important driving forces behind its own economic and social development, which goes hand-in-hand with disaster mitigation.
Dispatches of the Japan Disaster Relief Rescue Team
“Because Japan has a long history of dealing with a wide range of natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons, it has abundant experience and technical know-how regarding the entire disaster management cycle of response, recovery and reconstruction, as well as mitigation and preparedness,” explains Junichi Hirano, deputy director of the Secretariat of the JDR team at JICA, who participated in the operations in Haiti.
“The Japanese government provides international cooperation in disaster risk reduction emphasizing mitigation and preparedness so that others can make use of this know-how and the lessons from past mega-disasters in Japan,” adds Hirano. “It also works to disseminate disaster risk reduction tools and methods by dispatching experts overseas and by accepting officials in charge of disaster risk reduction from overseas as trainees.”
Japan is determined to share the knowledge it has acquired from both growth in its economy and society, and dealing with numerous large-scale natural hazards, with other countries around the globe.
“We have a responsibility to share the lessons and experiences of past mega disasters, such as Great Hansin Earthquake in 1995 and Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 to minimize damage caused by natural disasters,” says Hirano.
Sustainable social and economic development over many decades in Japan have led to safe public infrastructure, stringent building regulations, earthquake-proof buildings, a well-educated and disaster-drilled populace, advanced technology that can save lives, and highly-trained specialist search, rescue and recovery teams. The combination of these factors has led to a dramatically reduced loss of life and injury when Japan is struck by the earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, disasters to which it is still extremely prone. Though it will take time to bear fruit, similar progress in developing countries, facilitated through support from the international community, combined with the lessons learned from Japan, could help to significantly preserve life and livelihoods.
And the spirit and practice of helping out in times of need goes both ways.
“Japan actively promotes international cooperation for disaster risk reduction, and when Japan is struck by a large-scale disaster, teams from other countries will rush to help us,” says JICA’s Hirano. “As a person engaging in emergency relief assistance, I am proud that the bonds of friendship that Japan has forged all over the world have become a force that mutually assists people threatened by crises.”