Posts Tagged ‘Great Hanshin earthquake’

One year on from the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami

March 11, 2012

One year on and young hopes bloom eternal.

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

Young hopes bloom eternal: Illustration by Yuko Shimizu: From The Japan Times

I was in Japan during the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 when over 6,000 perished in Kobe and – inevitably – I try to relate events to my own experience. But the Graeat Tohuku earthquake and tsunami were something quite different and have claimed more than 20,000 lives.

The death toll was much greater after the Aceh earthquake and tsunami but was spread over many more countries and in that sense is more “diffuse”. Perceptions sometimes get diluted compared to the intensity of the reactions one year ago. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami claimed over 230,000 lives in 14 countries.

The meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami were pretty scary but sometimes the coverage (especially in Europe) becomes alarmist and tends to take away from the earthquake and tsunami. But it is worth remembering also that the incidents at Fukushima  – without trying to trivialise them – have caused no radiation related deaths.

Could the disaster in Japan power a wave of sustainable growth?

March 20, 2011

Natural disasters and wars are in general very bad things.

Nobody in their right minds would wish for one. But they occur anyway. Disasters and wars have an immediate cost in human life and capital destruction which can never be a chosen path for any ethical course of action. But when they do occur the long term consequences  can critically depend upon the economic environment in which they occur. It seems to me that when they occur in times of economic depression or economic stagnation they can provide the stimuli which can lift countries and whole regions onto a new path of economic growth. Of course the spending that follows does not in itself create wealth. The spending could have taken place on something else (or the wealth spent could have been saved). But it is the direction of spending and the mood of the spending which, I think, creates the potential benefit. It can create a step-change in thinking and behaviour and resolve and shift the path on which economic movement occurs.

The May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China killed over 80,000 and destroyed infrastructure on an unprecedented scale for modern China. Yet, the economy was not derailed and instead the massive rebuilding effort that followed added an extra 0.5% or so to the economic growth that followed. The January 1995 Kobe earthquake killed over 6,000 and wiped out the older central areas of Kobe and yet the investment that followed lifted the Japanese economy as a whole – but only for a time. A new mood was created but it was not accompanied by any real political shift. And from about 1999 onwards the Japanese economy has not only been stagnating but Japanese policies have also been stuck in a political rut. In spite of much talk about demographics and the ageing of Japan and the need for new thinking, the political inertia prevailed. This has only been exacerbated by the global financial crisis.

The dislocation to Japanese society and the economy caused by the Great Tohoku quake and tsunami will be massive. But I am quite sure that the Japanese and Japan will overcome. It will take some time but it could even break them out of the political rut and onto a quite different and much more sustainable path. If there is a fundamental shift out of the deadly political complacency which is long overdue, then the short term stimulus that rebuilding will surely bring could become sustainable and the Japanese economy could again be a major driver of global improvements.

chart of the day, japan industrial production 1995Natural disasters can give a boost to the countries where they occur

Rebuilding efforts serve as a short-term boost by attracting resources to a country, and the disasters themselves, by destroying old factories and old roads, airports, and bridges, allow new and more efficient public and private infrastructure to be built, forcing the transition to a sleeker, more productive economy in the long term.

“When something is destroyed you don’t necessarily rebuild the same thing that you had. You might use updated technology, you might do things more efficiently. It bumps you up,” says Mark Skidmore, an economics professor at Michigan State University. “Disasters help people think about things differently.”

Studies have found that earthquakes in California and Alaska helped stir economic activity there, and that countries with more hurricanes and storms tend to see higher rates of growth. Some of the most recent work has found a link between disasters and subsequent innovation.

Mark Skidmore of Michigan State, along with the economist Hideki Toya of Japan’s Nagoya City University, published a 2002 paper in the journal Economic Inquiry that mapped the disaster frequency of 89 countries against their economic growth over a 30-year period. Skidmore and Toya found that, in the case of climatic disasters – hurricanes and cyclones, as opposed to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions – the more the better: nations with more climatic disasters grew faster over the long run than the less disaster-prone.

Jesus Crespo Cuaresma, a professor of economics at the University of Innsbruck, has found some support for Skidmore and Toya’s argument. In post-disaster rebuilding efforts in developing countries  at least in wealthier developing countries like Brazil and South Africa, there is indeed a tendency to use the rebuilding process as an opportunity to upgrade infrastructure that might otherwise have been allowed to grow obsolete.

War is also a “disaster” which costs human lives and destroys capital but can have similar effects.

As Prof. Joshua S. Goldstein puts it:

War is not without economic benefits. At certain historical times and places, war can stimulate a national economy in the short term. During slack economic times, such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, military spending and war mobilization can increase capacity utilization, reduce unemployment (through conscription), and generally induce patriotic citizens to work harder for less compensation.

War also sometimes clears away outdated infrastructure and allows economy-wide rebuilding, generating long-term benefits (albeit at short-term costs). For example, after being set back by the two World Wars, French production grew faster after 1950 than before 1914.

Technological development often follows military necessity in wartime. Governments can coordinate research and development to produce technologies for war that also sometimes find civilian uses (such as radar in World War II). The layout of European railroad networks were strongly influenced by strategic military considerations, especially after Germany used railroads effectively to overwhelm French forces in 1870-71. In the 1990s, the GPS navigation system, created for U.S. military use, found wide commercial use. Although these war-related innovations had positive economic effects, it is unclear whether the same money spent in civilian sectors might have produced even greater innovation.

Overall, the high costs of war outweigh the positive spinoffs. Indeed, a central dilemma for states is that waging wars – or just preparing for them – undermines prosperity, yet losing wars is worse. Winning wars, however, can sometimes pay.

The Great Sendai Quake: Millions were saved by good engineering

March 14, 2011

The size of the quake and tsunami and death and suffering is enormous. It was an event that comes once in a millenium.

The danger and risk is not over.

Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant is still in a critical situation.

But the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 and the destruction in Kobe where “earthquake proofing” was limited because there had not been a sizable quake in the region for some 400 years, and some 6,000 people died after a 7.4 magnitude quake, puts this 9.0 magnitude quake into perspective. The Sendai quake was 8,000 times stronger than the Kobe quake and the massive tsunami was a feature not present in Kobe. In some areas the tsunami came rushing in just minutes after the quake. It is thought that the failure of the 13 emergency diesel generators at Fukushima Dai-ichi were caused by the arrival of the tsunami wave rather than by the quake and that the failure of coolant pumping has led to all the subsequent problems.

It has been good engineering, well developed and strict building standards and a tsunami warning system which has prevented the death toll from being counted in hundreds of thousands or even millions. The events in Fukushima Dai-ichi following this massive quake and tsunami must also be put into perspective against the Three Mile Island and Tjernobyl incidents where there were no natural disasters to be coped with. The majority of the casualties and the damage seems to have been due to the tsunami rather than directly due to the earthquake itself.

Engineering and technology will keep advancing and will never be perfect but I am quite sure that good engineering has saved a very great many.

The Great Sendai quake of 2011 is part of the Sun’s Dance

March 11, 2011

I was woken up in Tokyo in 1995 when the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit Kobe (having left Kobe 6 hours earlier on the last Shinkansen to Tokyo the night before) where the epicentre was just off Awaji Island but there was no tsunami then. The destruction was massive and Kobe burned and over 6,000 people perished.

All day today I have been watching the riveting pictures of the tsunami hitting the Sendai coast. The sheer power of the water sweeping irresistibly across the landscape picking up houses, ships, buses and cars like little cardboard models was terrible and awe-inspiring. The memories of 1995 came flooding back and it once again reminded me of the puny impact mankind has in the face of such forces.

And all the energy that is released by these great movements of the continents on Earth have their origin in the energy stored at the time of Earth’s creation and the energy it has received from the Sun since then. And all the energy of all these earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis and cyclones are as nothing to the energy released continuously by the Sun. To the Earth this Great Sendai quake of 2011 is just a very small adjustment of stresses and strains and is of little significance. The Great Dance orchestrated and choreographed by the  Sun will go on and the continents will keep drifting and moving under each other  and volcanoes will keep erupting. And our Science will continue to try and understand and predict when catastrophic events will occur. But we will have to tame the Sun if we are ever to be able to control these events.

The death toll in Sendai is rising and and as morning comes in a few hours to Japan the full extent of the destruction will begin to be revealed. Whole villages could well have been wiped out, entire trains have been carried away by the force of the waters and some ships are missing.  Fires are breaking out and the Fukushima nuclear plant was swamped.

Science and technology are our best defence against loss of life and loss of property by “natural” disasters. The preparedness of Japan is a tribute to this when comparing today’s tsunami with that after the Aceh quake of 2004. Science and technology will help us to cope with the consequences of these events and maybe – some day – will help us predict some of them. But they will not prevent such disasters.

The Sun is going through an unusual – but not unprecedented – minimum. There is no proof and there is no evidence of any causal relationship but there are correlations between increased earthquake and volcanic activity with solar minima and solar proton events. We have a further 2 or 3 years of increased earthquake and volcanic activity if this correlation holds true.

It seems not only plausible but also fitting that such great and terrible events can only be a part of the Great Dance of the Sun.

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