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« One Year Later: Rebuilding After the Great Tōhoku Earthquake | Main | Weekend Link Roundup (March 10-11, 2012) »

One Year Later: Reflections on Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami Recovery Efforts

March 10, 2012

(Gillian Yeoh, the principal author of this post, has been in charge of grantmaking for Give2Asia's disaster response in the Asia-Pacific region since 2006. In September 2011, Yeoh authored a report on disaster philanthropy that outlines lessons and best practices for disaster giving compiled by Give2Asia over the course of the last decade. (Click here to download the full report.) She can be reached at gyeoh@give2asia.org. A version of this post appears on the Philanthropy Front and Center-San Francisco blog.)

Tohoku_Region_largeAs I reflect on recovery efforts in Japan over the past year and what I have learned from the site visits I conducted, I am inspired by the resilience of the many people I met whose lives were forever changed by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. As Give2Asia continues to analyze and assess the situation and the ongoing needs of affected communities in the Tohoku region, one particular story of survival -- and of leadership --resonates.

When I first met Mr. Sato (Sato-san), a 70-year old Tohoku fisherman, in November, we were at a temporary housing area in Kitakamicho-jusanhama. With our board chair, his guests, and a local advisor, we were welcomed warmly into Sato-san's small temporary house. The small living room was filled with photos of his wife and grandson. We sat around a kotatsu (a low wooden frame covered by a futon or heavy blanket) as Sato-san began to share his story.

"My wife and grandson are still missing," he said. "The tsunami was estimated at six meters, but was actually twenty meters high. Beacuse of the early reports, my wife, my three brothers, and I ran to a place that was fifteen meters high. All I remember is holding on as the waves washed over me again and again. When I came to, my wife was missing. That night, I walked through ten centimeters of snow to my wife's hometown, but I could not find her."

Give2Asia Response

It is accounts like this that continue to motivate our work. In the immediate wake of the disaster, Give2Asia established the Japan Earthquake & Tsunami Fund to support affected communities. Thanks to U.S.-based partners such as the Japan Society of Northern California, the Keizai Society, Artists Help Japan, Japan Policy Research Institute at the University of San Francisco, and many, many corporations, Give2Asia raised $5.64 million. In the past year, we have supported fifteen relief and recovery projects in Tohoku with $2.55 million in grants. Along with our donors, we plan to continue working with capable local organizations to make targeted, strategic impact in the region over the next few years.

Give2Asia has responded to more than thirty disasters in Asia since its founding in 2001, mobilizing over $34.7 million in support. Based on our experience and prior work in Japan, we designed a disaster-response strategy specifically in response to the needs in Tohoku. To ensure the best use of the our donors' contributions, Give2Asia is supporting innovative ideas that require funding to demonstrate proof of concept, to scale, or to transition to public or corporate funding. We also are working to encourage our local partners to empower and involve survivors in the recovery process and to share information and networking initiatives so as to strengthen and amplify recovery efforts. In addition, we are working closely with local partners on finding creative solutions to problems of coordination and information gaps.

Unmet Needs

Due to the scope and nature of the disaster, there are many needs still unmet. Philanthropy has an opportunity to fill these gaps. On my visits to Japan, I have learned a lot from our partners on the ground. And from my encounters with beneficiaries of our assistance such as Sato-san, I have been educated about opportunities for philanthropy to meet the ongoing needs of survivors.

As a general rule, disasters leave vulnerable populations more vulnerable and tend to exacerbate social and economic issues. Prior to the earthquake and tsunami, for example, the Tohoku region was challenged by an aging population. In many cases, 30 percent to 40 percent of the people in affected coastal villages and towns were 65 or older, and many organizations working in the region identified the elderly as one of the most vulnerable populations. But Japan -- let alone rural Tohoku -- does not have enough gerontologists and other elder-care providers, and despite the clear need there has been a dearth of funding support for services for the elderly, as well as for persons with disabilities. The funding opportunities are many, from on-demand community bus programs for seniors living in temporary housing, to training for home-care providers, to community-building programs.

Employment and job programs are also important if the region's recovery is to be sustainable. In the first few months after the disaster, Sato-san and his fellow fishermen and -women (in Tohoku, approximately 20 percent of the people who make a living from fishing are women) were unable to work due to the destruction of their boats and the region's aquaculture farms, port facilities, and fishery-related factories. But thanks to the Pacific Asian Resource Center Interpeople's Cooperative (PARCIC), a local Give2Asia partner, Sato-san now leads his community's new fishing cooperative and has helped the community rebuild its wakame seaweed farms and bring in its first post-tsunami harvest.

Philanthropy can also step up by supporting organizations that are working to revitalize the local economy. For instance, Eat and Energize the East (EEE) is connecting local food producers with direct-to-market retailers, companies, and food producers. EEE also is testing locally grown and harvested products to counter the fear of radiation contamination. Elsewhere, the Peace Boat Disaster Volunteer Center is mobilizing volunteers to help affected communities recover their tools, desalinate their farms, and reopen ice factories. There are also dozens of young social entrepreneurs in Tohoku working to launch innovative projects with the potential to revitalize the local economy, and many of them are receiving support from an organization called Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities (ETIC).

Mental health care is another unmet need, with many survivors suffering from or falling victim to neglect, self-abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and even suicide. Due to the stigma associated with mental health issues in Japan, mental health professionals worry that many who are suffering are choosing not to come forward. It's important, therefore, to acknowledge the problem and support organizations like the Miyagi Mental Health Welfare Association (MMHWA), an affiliate of Tohoku University, that are working to educate victims about diagnosis and treatment. Among other things, MMHWA provides free mental health services for survivors and works to raise awareness about mental health problems and care. It is also providing training for doctors, community organizations, and healthcare workers with respect to a range of mental health problems, including alcohol abuse, PTSD, and depression.

The effects of mental illness are not limited to those who suffer from it. The increase in stress, PTSD, and depression may also lead to an increase in gender-based violence and additional burdens on women, who typically shoulder the responsibility for caring for children and the elderly while managing their family's meals and daily chores. Unfortunately, the disaster's impact on childcare services, elderly care services, and household income as added to the stress on women. Several organizations have recognized this need and are focusing on programs for women. Two such organizations, Madre Bonita and "Tokyo Satogaeri" (an effort of the Nippon Foundation), are providing programs for expectant and nursing mothers to combat the increased risk of miscarriage and labor complications as well as post-birth problems.

The Road Ahead

A lot has been accomplished in the year since the disaster struck. Still, most of the local groups I have met with estimate that full recovery in Tohoku will take at least a decade. Because it is unrealistic to expect international philanthropy to provide the same kind of support to the region over the next decade that it has over the last year, it is crucial that we involve local communities in the programs we continue to support. In doing so, we will ensure that affected communities gain ownership of the various programs and will feel empowered to rebuild their own lives, one step at a time. At the end of our meeting, Sato-san said he was much more motivated to help rebuild his community and livelihood as a result of the meeting and that he better understood and appreciated the compassion and support he and other survivors are receiving from donors around the globe.

I strongly believe that philanthropy and the social sector have a crucial role in the long-term recovery of Tohoku. It is the risk capital of philanthropy and the innovation of the social sector that will provide the flexibility and expertise to test new ideas, pilot new initiatives, and build the capacity of local leaders as catalysts for change. It is also philanthropy that can ensure that unmet needs are addressed and survivors are neither forgotten nor ignored.

You can learn more about current needs and philanthropic opportunities in support of the long-term recovery of the Tohoku region at our Web site.

-- Gillian Yeoh

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