Watching the tragedy in Northern Japan unfold it really brings home how humanitarian crises are evolving. We are all well aware of the increasing longevity of crises in the South and the intermix of politics, military strategy and aid. But Japan highlights two other features that are set to become more common.
First, size matters, and size is primarily determined by the number of people and the value of the economy that is struck. As city size grows and population density in cities increases, the same disaster-trigger will cause far more damage. The ability to recover from a disaster is in large part a product of how big the disaster is in proportion to the GDP of the country struck. The economic cost of the earthquake that hit china in May 2009 was about 1 to 2% of the country’s GDP. The earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 cost Haiti about the equivalent of one year’s GDP; 50 to 100 times most burden to the economy than the Chinese event. This month’s earthquake in Japan, may end up costing the country about 13% of its GDP.
So size matters, but it is relative size.
Second, complexity matters. Disasters in developed and rapidly developing counties tend to cascade. The tsunami immediately killed thousands and destroyed property. It inundated farmland and the loss of production from that land coupled with clean-up cost will be felt for years. It triggered a nuclear disaster. It triggered shockwaves across the Japanese economy, and out into the global economy. It diverted political attention from Libya, slowing down the possibility of international support for the Libyan rebels.
As we build a more connected and globalized world, we can expect more of these complex disasters and will need to develop a far more robust and global way of responding to them.