On the eve of the first anniversary of the worst natural disaster in Japan in a century, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says the remarkable progress to sort and dispose of millions of tonnes of waste has set new standards for managing post-disaster debris.
The Great East Japan Earthquake, and ensuing tsunami, killed more than 15,000 people and destroyed cities and villages along the coast of the country's Tohoku region, generating about 29 million tonnes of debris in that region alone. Some 3,305 people are still listed as missing, and more than 340,000 evacuees remain.
At the request of the Government of Japan, UNEP has today completed a week-long international expert mission to the post-disaster zone, visiting waste management and debris recycling facilities and sharing information and exchanging experiences with people involved in the clean-up effort.
Given Japan's reputation as one of the best disaster-prepared countries in the world, there is intense interest from waste management and emergency response specialists around the world in how Japan has coped following the massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake on 11 March last year.
UNEP's international expert mission, organised by UNEP's International Environmental Technology Centre (IETC), in Osaka, Japan, and the Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch, in Geneva, Switzerland, will be of great value in terms of sharing learning about what has been done to date to cope with post-disaster debris, benchmarking and disseminating the experiences.
"It is impossible to look at images of the devastation without feeling enormous sympathy for the people of the Tohoku region, who are still enduring great upheaval and disruption to their daily lives,'' said Achim Steiner, UNEP's Executive Director and Under Secretary-General of the United Nations.
"This makes Japan's extraordinary clean up efforts all the more remarkable. They have made commendable progress in the past 12 months, and we hope that by studying the work they have done, the technologies they used and the decisions they have made, we will be able to improve the way debris from any future disasters around the world is handled."
Estimation of waste volumes after a disaster is a significant challenge as all subsequent actions depend on reasonable estimates. UNEP hopes to use data gathered by the mission to assist in developing an international protocol on estimating the volume of debris in post-disaster settings. Such a protocol would prove invaluable in terms of estimating the associated workload and cost of cleaning up after disasters.
The mission is also the first step in setting up an international network of disaster-debris management specialists, so that their knowledge and experience can be combined and made available to any country dealing with a major disaster.
Natural disasters caused a record US$366 billion (about 28 trillion yen) damage in 2011, according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), with the damage from the events in Japan accounting for almost two- thirds.
The eight-member mission team, which has representatives from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Japan's Tohoku University, had a wide-ranging programme of visits, including:
- To Ofonato and Miyako, two fishing villages struggling to deal with huge quantities of waste fishing nets, among other debris.
- To a cement company that is accepting disaster debris from the Iwate Prefecture and using it as fuel and feedstock for cement manufacturing.
- To the biggest incinerator in Japan, which can treat up to 1500 tonnes of waste a day.
The team also visited "Single Pine Tree", the sole survivor of the thousands of pine trees that once lined the coastline of the city of Rikuzentakada, which has become a symbol of the resilience and spirit of the Japanese people.
"We do not see this as a one-time exercise," said Matthew Gubb, Director of UNEP's IETC, one of the organisers of the mission. "After every disaster, management of debris is turning out to be an important and expensive precondition prior to rehabilitation of people and environment. As IETC focuses its attention on waste management, ensuring that the international best practices on disaster debris management will be available to all countries through a network of experts and other knowledge products will be our long-term objective."
"Removing debris and securing livelihoods are two major challenges of the post-disaster recovery period. In Japan, we note that the survivors of the tsunami are employed in the disaster management facilities, which achieves the twin objectives. This is a good model to follow in post-disaster settings," said team member Ronnie Crossland, from the US EPA.
"Landfilling and incineration are some of the easy and obvious options after major disasters to achieve rapid volume reduction. However, in Japan there are restrictions on both due to geographic and legal reasons. It is therefore important to maximise segregation and reuse even if that will take more time to complete", said Professor Yoshioka from Tohoku University.
"Estimating debris after every disaster is a major technical challenge, but also an important one as estimating the cost of post-disaster recovery depends on it, said Yves Barthelemy, Head of the Geomatics Department, Paris-Est University. "UNEP has been working on developing a protocol and will use the detailed estimates arrived at by the Japanese municipalities to compare with a satellite image based projection. This approach will enable more rapid estimate of disaster wastes in other disaster situations."
Preliminary findings from the mission include:
- The contingency plans put in place by some prefectures before the earthquake allowed them to respond more quickly to the waste management challenge. For example, in Sendai, which had contingency plans, three incinerators are already in place processing 460 tonnes of waste a day.
- While Japan has done much to advance world best-practice on handling disaster debris, there is scope for substantial optimisation in the efforts so as to lower the costs of post-disaster debris management and reduce its environmental impacts.
- Commendable emphasis has been placed on waste segregation and recycling. Waste is divided into several categories such as wood, metals, electrical items, tatami mats, fishing nets, vehicles, plastics and so on. Some segregated materials are already being reused: for instance, tree trunks are being sent to a paper mill, shredded wood is being sent to a cement company for use as fuel in the manufacturing process, and building rubble is being recycled as building material, landfill or in road-making.
- Maximizing the possibilities for waste recovery and recycling while minimizing the need for transportation are priorities for effective debris management.
- Under Japanese law, the manufacturers of cars and whitegoods (refrigerators, washing machines etc) are responsible for the final disposal of their products. However, the volume of disaster debris generation is likely to overwhelm their intake capacity, which may need augmentation.
- Despite the magnitude of the challenges, and their own personal tragedies, the officials of the various cities in Japan are doing systematic and dedicated work to manage the debris in a timebound fashion.
- Opportunities for learning from best practices of various cities exist and a systematic approach to capturing them and disseminating them would be beneficial.
- The national guidelines produced for disaster debris management could be locally adapted with input from academic experts to reflect local circumstances. This will lead to more environmentally optimal outcomes.
- There is scope for improved monitoring and communication of the waste management activities in the disaster impacted areas, which will enable everybody to appreciate the challenges faced and efforts made.
In conjunction with Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNEP will produce a video and a report containing the key successful initiatives and technologies deployed in Japan, for wide distribution internationally. The video is due to be released in April, while the report is due out in mid 2012.
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