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Social Vulnerability Found in the Great China Sichuan Earthquake
- Issues Depicted by Natural Disaster -

Masaki Urano
Professor of Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

One month has past since the disastrous China Sichuan Earthquake, which occurred in May, 2008. It followed the Myanmar tragedy, a cyclone responsible for the death and missing of 100,000 persons. The China Sichuan Earthquake was just as terrible. These two disasters have something in common in terms of vulnerability the areas have had for ages, and that vulnerability has appeared instantaneously as wounds of disaster.

Problems in common between Myanmar, China, and Japan

In the cyclone damage in Myanmar, the plight of the victims who were deserted and could not receive international supports due to the longstanding repressive control of the military government has come under scrutiny. It is quite unclear whether or not international aid supplies are delivered to the victims, and how they are delivered; the living conditions of many victims, which are rarely reported, are the same neglected state as they were just after the disaster, and hardship is said to rise more and more increasingly. A lack of information signifies that a great amount of victims could be left behind without any support.

In contrast with Myanmar's, the damage of the China Sichuan Earthquake and dangers of the following effects have been reported rather quickly in sequence after the earthquake. So the national and international aid groups could start large-scale operations immediately to help the victims, which was one of the good aspects of disaster response. As for the vulnerability, fatal accidents of a large number of school children due to the collapse of elementary and junior high schools' buildings with extremely bad earthquake protection occurred. Short supply of drinking water came next due to water stoppage for fear of rumors of water contamination, because there was every possibility of exploding of a chemical plant in the upstream. The breakage danger of cracking of many large dams that had been developed for water power generation caused a lot of evacuation problems for the people downstream. In addition to this, there appeared to be huge "quake lakes" that were formed by the damming of rivers due to landslides caused by the earthquake. The fear of their breakage resulted in the increase of infectious danger, lack of clean water and food, and danger of radioactive leakage in damaged nuclear facilities as well. The damaged areas, which are composed of a lot of depopulated poverty areas in the Chinese Inland where small villages scatter in a wide area, are areas where many minority races such as Tibetan race live. In these underdeveloped areas there have been constructed new kinds of facilities, such as large scale hydroelectric dams and military nuclear facilities. Based on the modernization program, new elementary school and junior high school buildings, have been constructed in low budget in those underdeveloped areas. We can easily find out that these particular types of damage and the dangers the people are much concerned about are deeply related to the area's vulnerability. Economic constitution and collusion structure in depopulated areas resulting in poor earthquake protection and slipshod work, which become the target of condemnation later, are phenomenon linked inextricably to the area's vulnerability.

When considering the families who lost their houses as many as several million, the disaster and the lingering effect of the disaster that will continue for dozens of years from now on seems to be deeply entangled with their social-position-related problems which minority people have been experienced and the areas' structurally constructed poverty problems. These kinds of damage are not always specific to developing countries, however, it is considered that in Japan similar problems also have been experienced though the scale is somewhat different.

Persisting natural disasters: an alarm raised over Japan

People have been increasingly alarmed since 1990 that "the geologically halcyon era" in Japan is over, and the era when large disasters occur frequently is coming. This alarm signifies that the postwar economic growth in Japan is, so to speak, a fruit of this "halcyon era", and that more serious disasters will be likely to occur. Such disasters would reveal the "social distortion" that has been accumulated in the course of the falling birthrate and the aging population and in the course of the rapid social change. A series of disasters, such as the eruption of Mount Unzen-Fugen, the tsunami of Okushiri Island, the Great Kobe Earthquake, the evacuation of the island's entire population due to the Miyake Island Eruption, the Chuetsu earthquake have given us enormous evidences of the dangerous reality. In addition to this, the Chuetsu-Oki earthquake in Niigata Prefecture in July 2007 has made the ongoing threat of a nuclear power station alarmingly apparent.

In considering the disasters in Japan, the 1990s is said to be a turning point, partly because the characteristics of disasters that occurred frequently since then are quite different from those of the previous disasters and partly because the way in which their social effects as social processes are either. For example, the eruption of Mount Unzen-Fugen, which occurred at the beginning of the 1990s, is famous for the prolonged disaster process in which the strained damage by pyroclastic flows and debris flows continued for a very long time. The enlarged and prolonged damage and living crises in the disaster revealed another aspect of a disaster phenomenon to which little attention had been paid before then. Influences on living depended not only on the actual damage but also on employment structure, business patterns, and family structure (typically in age group distribution of family members). Moreover strategies for coping with living crises made a great difference. The disasters and the prolonged recovery period changed family relations and economic lives profoundly in an irreversible way. Efforts to recover their lives and to reconstruct their community led to longstanding trials and collective movements by local residents under the above-mentioned severe living conditions. Although these movements fluidized conventional social relations, differences in the above-mentioned living conditions continued to give a deep influence. The prolonged disaster was also a dynamic process, in which different resident groups were receiving quite different influences in each step of periods.

Interest in reconstruction processes introduced by the Great Kobe earthquake

In the Great Kobe earthquake in 1995, the shock itself was very short, but the damage lingered for a quite long time. It was clear that tragic results reflected various social factors and measures taken for the disaster, occurred in a chain-reaction and irreversible manner, and changed largely by the artificial and social factors. The Great Kobe earthquake was a disaster in which long term living restoration and reconstruction occupied more attention of the people than the damage and the emergency response management (including rescue, medical aids, and emergency evacuation). The restoration and reconstruction processes of disaster areas were discussed in relation to the restoration and reconstruction of the people's lives involved in the disaster. The progress of restoration and reconstruction of a particular community was deeply connected to the better living condition of the individual resident. The difficulty of living reconstruction and that of community reconstruction due to entangled social factors were becoming the focal point of people's attention.

In the 2000s, disasters that attacked an isolated island, depopulated areas, and local cities occurred in succession: the evacuation of the island's entire population for four years and five months due to the eruption of Miyake Island (August 2000), the Chuetsu earthquake in Niigata Prefecture (October 2004), the Noto Peninsula Earthquake (March 2007), and the Niigata Chuetsu-Oki earthquake (July 2007). In the Chuetsu earthquake, depopulated mountain villages which had created attractive local cultures were driven into a fatal crisis. In catastrophic damage to infrastructures that supported communities and in the prospect of a sharp budget cut in local funds throughout the country, important questions are raised such as; what reconstruction of living and community against disasters that attack villages in depopulated areas is, and what problems to be talked over are appear to be on the agenda. In the Niigata Chuetsu-Oki earthquake, the danger of the nuclear power stations showed their severe reality, though the area had accepted those facilities for local development because of the sufficient safety-procedures by the company. However the response of the nuclear power station to natural disasters was not efficient enough. Therefore the vulnerability of the area that accepted the nuclear power stations was highlighted anew.

These recent natural disasters in Japan revealed various types of precariousness in the social structure of the communities and the vulnerability individual resident groups have. These experiences also led to a viewpoint where even under the condition that we ought to accept this vulnerability as given we are necessary to talk over such questions as how living conditions could be restored from there and on what basis we could do it. When considering a long term disaster processes, like restoration and reconstruction processes in Asia, this kind of knowledge may probably help to understand deep social influences a disaster has and to depict the social problems that they will have.

Masaki Urano

Professor of Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Specialized on urban sociology, community studies, and disaster studies. At present, Head of Institute for Sustainable Community and Risk Management, Waseda University. Main books include: "Introduction to Sociological Studies on the Impact of Natural Disasters" and "Introduction to Sociological View of Community Reconstruction Process after Disasters" ("Disaster and Society Series" 2007, Koubun-dou Publishers Inc.), "Actuality of Sociology, vol. 8/Urban Community and Risk" (Toshin-do Publishing Co., Ltd., 2005), "Sociology of the Great Kobe Earthquake" vol. 1 to 3 (Showa-do Publishing Co., Ltd., 1999), etc.

Lab HP:http://www.waseda.jp/sem-muranolt01/