Health, Risk Disaster (HeaRD) UK-Japan Network: Some observations and reflections
By Saqar ' M Al Zaabi, on 10 June 2019
Post written by Dr. Amira Osman, UCL – IRDR
I attended a research symposium, which was part of Health, Risk Disaster (HeaRD) UK-Japan Network held in Japan from April 15-17, 2019 and organised by the University of Edinburgh and Fukushima Medical University https://ghpu.sps.ed.ac.uk/heard/. Participants included researchers and students from the UK and Japan as well as practitioners, notably medical staff from Japan. The variety of topics discussed in the presentations and talks reflected the participants’ diverse areas of expertise.
Fukushima Daiichi disaster
On the 11th of March 2011, Japan was struck by an earthquake that triggered a tsunami and a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. This triple disaster came to be known as the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The damage to the nuclear power plant led to the release of radioactive materials. More than 15,000 people were killed and tens of thousands were displaced as a result of this devastating event. Land and animals also experienced an unprecedented damage, notably due to high radiation. The aim of this symposium was to explore the various social, environmental and economic dimensions of Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
The symposium included a two-day workshop and visits to disaster sites. The workshop took place at Fukushima Medical Hospital and Minamisoma Municipal General Hospital. It covered a number of topics from maternity and child health, community studies and broader social issues linked to health, radiation-related issues (Fukushima-specific), and vulnerability and disadvantage following a disaster. A Slack workplace was also created for the participants to continue networking, uploading their research activities/papers and informing each other about funding opportunities and relevant events.
Then, we had the opportunity to visit a number of sites related to the disaster such as a damaged fish farm and empty houses in red zones areas: the areas that were still contaminated and labelled as unsafe for people to live in. We also visited areas that are declared safe for evacuees. There, I had the chance to chat with some of them who welcomed us with great hospitability, and spoke of the joy of recovering and returning home. A visit was also made to the Fukushima nuclear power plant and its surrounding area. And lastly, we visited a local NGO working with the communities that were affected by the disaster to further understand the role of grassroots organisations in the disaster.
The sight of damaged areas still makes you think that the disaster had just occurred. This was the case with different sites such as a fish farm near the Fukushima plant, a nursing home and a farm in Namie town where contaminated cattle (still alive) had white spots on their skin as a result of high radiation. These contaminated cattle escaped the government slaughter of contaminated cattle because the owner who first refused to evacuate, despite the high volume of radiation, stood against the government order to kill his contaminated cattle.
This was due to three main reasons. First, as a farmer in a family farm he had built some connection with his livestock. Second, the farmer believed that the cattle would eat contaminated grass, therefore contributing to decontamination of the area. Third, his refusing to follow the government order was a way of protesting against the nuclear power plant, which he believed it harms the environment. This experience reveals the complexity of resilience and responses to disasters, and that survivors’ own perceptions on how to deal with disasters and its aftermath need to be considered when applying a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) approach.
The radiation from the nuclear power plant also contaminated the soil. The contaminated soil was kept in black plastic bags to be stored underground in designated areas for thirty years. It was unclear what would happen to this soil after the thirty years have passed.
Dinner at Minamisoma City
A joyful element of the visit to Fukushima, despite my short stay, was getting to know the Japanese people and their culture. This was demonstrated in the welcoming attitude I experienced at the symposium venues, local shops, restaurants, train stations and hotels. Despite the language barriers, it was not that difficult to be understood and/or to understand conversations in Japanese/English when buying train tickets and asking for an adaptor for a laptop at the hotel. Enjoying the delicious Japanese food and conversations with the other workshop participants was one of the highlights of the visit.