Failing to prepare

The magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami in Japan brought the focus once again on disaster-management. That extreme events have become common is now common knowledge; but for some reason, disaster-management becomes a topic of discussion only after a disaster.

Try discussing disasters on an ordinary day with colleagues and friends and you might be told to stop becoming paranoid. What will be, will be, they might remind you. We just need to be stoic and face up to whatever happens because no plan can ever be fail-safe.

Contrary to what one would expect, the Japan disaster seems to have increased the sense of fatalism because the country was already one of the most disaster-prepared countries in the world. If Japan, with its regular earthquake and tsunami drills could be so overwhelmed, what more can other mortal countries do? What do you do against forces which shift the coastline by eight feet and the earth’s axis by four inches as in the case of Japan?

Right, but can the answer be – do nothing?

“In 2008, I did a wide-ranging risk assessment of businesses in Queensland to manage their water supplies in the event of a disaster,” recalls Mohan Seneviratne, an independent consultant. “The survey showed that preparation for risk of water disruption was non-existent since many believed they would have 24X7 water supply in a developed country like Australia,” he says. According to him, even a disruption in supply for a few hours would halt production in many of the businesses in the country.

In the case of municipal water, it is even more critical to get the supplies up and running as pointed out by Pedro Pablo Errazuriz, Chairman of Essbio, one of Chile’s water service providers. Chile was ravaged by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in early 2010.

While the restoration of power can wait, water services cannot be delayed. Mr Errazuriz had pointed out that being in the private sector had helped to restore water services more quickly. “We could make contractors start working without negotiating a contract, and negotiate it afterwards; this is not possible for state-owned corporations,” he said. Also, since the cost was paid by shareholders rather than taxpayers, Essbio could handle any issue faster and easier than the government.

But all said and done, making structures more disaster-safe, installing technological control solutions and equipping workers with the latest tools requires money. With utilities already struggling to recover their operations cost, every disaster-mitigation measure has to be a trade-off against another capital expenditure.

Usually, after a disaster it becomes easier to get in new investment to overhaul infrastructure and start afresh. But it’s high time we stopped being reactive in our responses to disasters. With a proactive approach, it is possible to have a strategy in place even with a small budget.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.

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