Megadisasters – Why Learning Matters

July 10, 2014


Sichuan Province after 2008 earthquake. China.

© Wu Zhiyi / World Bank

  • Disaster risk management is becoming increasingly important as population densities rise in urban areas around the world.
  • A new report, Learning from Megadisasters, shares lessons learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.
  • Even poor countries with limited resources can build their capacity to prepare for and cope with disasters.

No country can prevent natural disasters, but we can all prepare for them by learning as much as possible about the risks and consequences of devastating events, and by making informed decisions to manage both, said a new report launched last week in London at an event co-hosted by the World Bank and University College London.

Learning from Megadisasters, a joint World Bank-Government of Japan report, said disaster risk management is becoming increasingly important as the global economy becomes more interconnected, as environmental conditions shift, and as population densities rise in urban areas around the world.

“As cities grow, vulnerabilities increase due to increasing density, a burgeoning population, hastily built informal housing, and the lack of basic services,” said Abha Joshi-Ghani, the World Bank’s Director of Leadership, Learning and Innovation and a member of an expert panel that discussed the report’s findings. Often the poorest people are the most vulnerable.

Heavy rains in Kampala, Uganda, in 2012, for example, caused flooding in low-lying informal settlements, or slums, and displaced thousands of people. “The challenge of Kampala is that development is moving faster than planning,” said Uganda’s Minister of Disaster Risk Management, Musa Ecweru, another panelist.”People build homes in marginal lands, like water channels, and they are first to suffer from floods.”

Disasters put lives and prosperity at risk. Damages are very local but have a huge impact on GDP. It is estimated that, over the last 30 years, natural disasters have caused about $4 trillion in damages. Translating the knowledge gained from disasters into action is key, said the Megadisasters report.

The report distills the main lessons from the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, the first disaster ever recorded that included an earthquake, a tsunami, a nuclear power plant accident, a power supply failure, and a large-scale disruption of supply chains. The disaster claimed 20,000 lives, but more lives and property would have been lost if Japan had not invested in preventative measures and nurtured a strong culture of knowledge and learning from past disasters, said the report.

Proactive approaches to risk management can range from having good land use strategies and building codes in high-risk areas to empowering community members in their role as first responders. 

Both tactics helped Christchurch, New Zealand, recover from a powerful 2011 earthquake. According to Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel, “Everyone thought the earthquake in New Zealand would hit Wellington, and it was a surprise when it hit Christchurch… A lot more people would have died if we didn’t have the building codes in place.” 


" The world is one global village, and what happens in one corner of the world has ramifications in all the corners of the world today. "

Musa Ecweru

Uganda’s Minister of Disaster Risk Management

When first responders were overwhelmed in the aftermath of the earthquake, hundreds of students and farmers stepped in to mobilize volunteers and medical personnel and to help clean up. “I think that, after a disaster of the magnitude that we experienced, it’s too much to expect that the official response can reach out to the whole community, and so the community had to look to itself,” said Dalziel.

The Megadisasters report seeks to unpack and deliver lessons on creating a culture of preparedness that can be used even in poor countries with limited resources. Such countries can still build resilience in their people and institutions and build their capacity to be prepared, react, and preserve their societies, said the report.

We are preparing our capacity for disasters in Uganda. This learning is important,” said Ecweru of Uganda. “The world is one global village, and what happens in one corner of the world has ramifications in all the corners of the world today... So if there is anything that Africa can learn from how the Japanese managed it and how they are trying to prevent the recurrence of this kind of devastation…it is good for Japan and also good for the rest of the world.”

What will be the legacy of this project?  The Bank-Japan initiative aims to help other countries protect themselves from major disasters by adopting – and adapting as necessary – some of the measures taken by Japan, and by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of Japan’s response to the Great East Japan Earthquake.

 “We can’t plan for megadisasters, we can only prepare for them,” said Joshi-Ghani. “It’s really critical to learn from the experiences of others, in terms of how to prepare and actually how to mitigate the risks and the impacts of these disasters.

Stephen Fries, Chief Economist of UK’s Department of Energy & Climate Change,agreed, “Learning from others’ experience is important. London learned from Denmark’s experience with flooding.

 “If you look to the future, the issues covered by the report on learning from disasters is going to be increasingly important as developing countries urbanize, become more compact, become more connected, but also potentially more fragile, and learning how to build resilience in developing countries is going to be absolutely central.