The cataclysmic events in Japan on Friday have rocked the world. They serve to illustrate how even the best preparations are sometimes inadequate. Even the best early warning systems, the strictest building codes and world-leading nuclear regulatory schemes were overwhelmed by a huge earthquake and massive tsunami.
But this is only the latest example of our collective challenge by huge disruptive and discontinuous change. To be sure, violent geological and meteorological events grab the headlines immediately. The carnage and devastation wrought by them is horrifying. The sudden and seemingly unpredictable nature of these disasters makes them all the more terrifying. It’s true that nobody can predict and earthquake with any sort of precision. But they happen all the time and most of the worst of them happen on the Pacific ‘ring of fire’ – Indonesia, Chile, Alaska have all had events in the last 40-50 years similar to what’s going on this weekend in Japan.
The aftermath of this event off the Honshu coast is yet to be fully assessed. Many thousands are unaccounted for and a level 4 nuclear emergency has been declared at Fukushima. Hundreds of thousands have been evacuated in the surrounding area. One report has said 10,000 people are missing from a single town obliterated by the waves. This seems to be an event for which there are no possible precautions.
Building nuclear power stations on seismically active real estate seems, in retrospect, highly inappropriate. Densely inhabiting the eastern coast of Japan knowing the risks of tremors & tsunamis seems, after the fact, to be asking for trouble. But what about California? What about Indonesia? There are nuclear facilities on the Pacific coast near San Diego. 90 million people live on Java; 50 million of them in and around Jakarta.
In an age of increasingly severe natural disaster, it seems the rules have changed – with frightful consequences. Millions of lives hang in the balance with untold physical, social, economic and political ramifications for many, many more. While our hearts go out to the people around Sendai, I’m sure questions are being asked both in Tokyo and other places around the region – were the risks sufficiently appreciated and mitigated? Do they need to be reassessed in these times of much more severe events?
If there does need to be an escalation in how we cater for these kinds of events, then where to we go for guidance? It’s clear that quakes & waves, fires & floods, droughts & storms are happening all around the world with ever-increasing ferocity. The episodes, when they occur, are very fluid and change from minute-to-minute and hour-to-hour, sometimes for extended timeframes. Where to we go to to learn how to cater for such changing situations?
The answer is not obvious nor clear to many, but mankind does have some rather remarkable capabilities in this regard. They are in the military-intelligence community. The mechanisms, both technical and economic, are already there in the global military-industrial complex. What’s not in place are the political governance structures – the laws and institutions – to deploy what spies, armies, navies & air-forces can do for the greater good in civil emergencies. That has to change as a matter of extreme priority.
An earthquake and a tsunami are like a surprise attack. The scenario needs to be war-gamed beforehand and the responses rehearsed in full-scale exercises. A big forest fire, like the one in Australia a couple of years ago and the one in Russia more recently, are like a probable attack. The conditions for fire arise more slowly and build up over time. The weather is somewhat predictable. Storms are similarly foreseeable, albeit in the short-term. Floods, like the ones in Queensland and Victoria this summer, are also like an attack that can be foretold to some extent. The La Nina rains that brought the floods this year that ended the long drought in Australia. These were hugely destructive, partly because there was little preparation and the response was carried out by civilian emergency services resources that were stretched to the limits.
On the other hand, nation-states and regional alliances have enormous standing defence forces. They have unmanned space and aerial surveillance and monitoring platforms permanently on station. A huge intelligence apparatus monitors these sensors combined with human assets to form assessments for national and alliance command structures, military & civilian. In almost every case in the richer developed world, the national commander-in-chief is an elected civilian political leader. In the more mature alliances, like NATO, the command structure includes diplomatic, legal, political and other civilian figures in shared leadership roles with their military counterparts. In short, the existing institutions have many of the key elements needed to apply them to non-warfare situations, like natural disasters.
So, I can hear people saying, the army gets involved with the rescue and reconstruction phase of many disasters already! That’s true. But their assets and capabilities are not ready either before the fact or during the fact as they are now needed. Emergency services doctrine needs to shift from its civilian legacy towards a new, more rigorous and intensely military-intelligence grade of service. These recent disasters are much more like battle than they are like a flood, a fire, a storm or a quake is assumed to be from an operational point of view. Many more people and many more assets are under threat. The nature of large-scale, high-density modern urbanisation situated in high-risk geographies demands military-intelligence grade doctrine, assets and resources to prepare and protect them (as well help them rescue & recover them).
The legal intricacies of this shift in doctrine, assets and resourcing are mind-boggling. How does intelligence-sharing between and within jurisdictions and alliance frameworks happen? Why would the smaller poorer nations of the world even want to help the larger richer ones? How does a national government allow the state-based emergency services organisations to access national defence force information, assets and personnel. Does martial-law or some less draconian form of it need to be declared pre-emptively to make this all work? What kinds of laws would need to be passed so that our war-fighting expertise, equipment and people could even engage based on a forecast of a disaster, let alone the occurrence of one? Is this the start of a slippery slope toward extreme state-intervention?
Some of the answers to these questions are surprisingly simple and already with us today. In the US, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) already has the power to suspend the Constitution in certain dire circumstances. In some countries, the army is significantly integrated into the the emergency management community infrastructure. In others, if not most, they have the capacity and capabilities to deploy in-country after a officially-declared state of emergency. But some answers to some of these questions will be difficult. There is no doubt that the space-based and unmanned aerial vehicles would greatly assist the management of long campaign fire or a great flood or even big storm events. But the thing that makes those tools useful in battle are not in place for civilian emergency services. Things like whole-of-situation command centres that integrate large amounts of real-time information from many sources into a single picture of what’s going on as it happens on the ground. Things like simulations of scenarios that have been prepared in advance in minute detail. Things like the war-game exercises that have been played out in real life time and time again.
Which leaves us with the most difficult of all the questions – why? Historically, war has been a very well-funded human endeavour. National security seems to be a very popular reason for raising and spending money on all sorts of things. Emergency services has traditionally never attracted that kind of funding either from the public or private sector. The military-intelligence community has all those thing because the people want them to have it. Consequently, they can afford it. Perhaps the pain of not affording tighter integration between the military-intelligency folks and the emergency services folks will become high enough so that this will change before too long. But the idea needs currency and people in the right places need to get behind it before it will happen.
Here too, there are some signs for optimism. One of the most powerful political lobbies in the free world is starting to sit up and take notice – the insurance industry. Natural disaster is starting to cost them, big time! The events in Japan this weekend are likely to carry very hefty repair bills, upwards of $100 billion. The last time they had anything like that was during the Kobe earthquake in 1995. The US actuarial community who know the insurance numbers well are starting to get very active through the extended financial services community on this matter. After all, through re-insurance, these risks are spread internationally and it’s in a lot of interests that this issue get resolved. It’s also the case that denying insurance to very high-risk is highly unpopular, both commercially and politically. So both financiers and governments need to jump on this one with some urgency. In the wake of the Queensland floods, there’s even some talk about the public and private sectors getting together to work out some form of shared insurance going forward.
Managing and mitigating the risks involved in sudden, profound and discontinuous change are all around us. The example of a tremor and tsunami originating off north-easter Honshu gets the world’s attention, much as Hurricane Katrina did in 2005. Systemic risk is not just about natural disasters, although they illustrate the point. If change is trending towards these sudden, big, deep and impactful events – like the Arab uprising in North Africa – perhaps catering for that kind of change can help us deal with many very practical things. It seems like it’s the doctrine and institutions that need to change to accommodate this first. Life-threatening change doesn’t always come in the form of a natural disaster. Mankind has a pretty grim track record of causing them also.