• Waste management in Japan
  • Circular economy in Japan
  • Waste management in Asia
  • Disaster waste management
*The following is an English translation of an article from the July 2015 issue of the Division’s online magazine (see the original text in Japanese).

Disaster-Resilient Waste Management

July 2015 issue

What makes waste management stronger against disasters?

The Tohoku Earthquake made us realize the importance of building a society that is strong against disasters. Waste management, from waste collection to final disposal, is one of the most basic and important services for maintaining the quality of our lives, and thus making it stronger is vital for the society that is strong against disasters. If so, what makes waste management stronger against disasters? For instance, if an incineration plant is made more earthquake-resistant to remain operational even at the time of a quake, the waste management system can be said to be strong against disasters. In addition, if a large amount of waste derived from a large-scale disaster is treated rapidly, that can also be said to be strong against disasters. In this way, strength of a waste management system against disasters seems to consist of several different aspects. This article will introduce a word “resilience” as a term that properly captures these different aspects of strength against disasters.

The buzzword “resilience”

Recently, “resilience” has become a buzzword in disaster risk reduction. Globally, numerous research studies and policy measures for building the “resilient” society have been undertaken. The idea of the resilient society, one of the ideal images of our society to aim at, is widely shared by those who are engaged in disaster management. The Japanese government established the National Resilience Promotion Office in the Cabinet Secretariat to strengthen “national resilience.” This word “resilience” was originally known as a technical term in physics that describes elasticity or restoring force of an object (i.e., Hooke’s law). More recently however, this term has been used as a metaphor in a wide range of fields such as ecology, disaster management, international assistance, climate change, and psychology. Definition of “resilience” may slightly differ depending on the field or the people. In the field of disaster management, it can be explained by a combination of two aspects, namely “capacity to reduce disaster impact” and “capacity of recovering from the damage.”

Let us examine the first aspect, “capacity to reduce disaster impact.” Once a disaster occurs, it affects human society in many ways; it takes human lives, cuts off electricity/water supplies, and disrupts transportation networks. However, two important factors, namely “no exposure” to disasters and “reducing sensitivity” to them even with exposure, could decrease the impact of disasters. If a large-scale earthquake strikes an uninhibited area, there would be no damage to people or properties. This is a “no exposure” example. In another case, even if the earthquake hits a residential area, quake-resistant houses will not be easily damaged. This is a “reducing sensitivity” example. Traditionally, disaster management aimed at preventing damage as mentioned above, but it had limitations. Neither all future disasters can be predicted, nor taking preventive measures against all possible disasters is realistic due to financial constraints.

Due to these limitations, the second aspect “capacity of recovering from the damage” comes in handy to explain resilience. We acknowledge the fact that disasters can still cause damages regardless of our prevention efforts, and affirm that it will be fine if we can recover from them promptly. The term “recovery” in this context does not simply mean returning to the pre-disaster state. Rather, it means restoring “functions” that are indispensable to our lives. If “resilience” is defined as an ability to simply go back to the original state, the affected area with resilience might return to the same vulnerable state as before the disaster. Take tsunami-prone areas as an example. Although recurring tsunamis take many human lives, some people may still return to the tsunami-struck areas after disaster events to live in the same way as before. If this is the case, being “resilient” may not make a positive impression. However, if “resilient” is defined as the ability to quickly restore necessary functions, the affected people can restore their healthy living environment and livelihood by other means (e.g., moving to other areas). As above, reinforcement of disaster-prone regions based on the lessons learned from the past disaster events is one of the important elements of resilience.

The “resilient” waste management system we aim for

Now, what constitutes a “resilient” waste management system? Our discussion above on the “capacity to reduce disaster impact” suggests two aspects: (1) reduction of waste generation in disaster situations, and (2) minimization of disruption to waste management services (e.g., damage to treatment facilities and collection vehicles). Another discussion on the “capacity of recovering from the damage” suggests two additional aspects: (3) prompt restoration of regular municipal waste management service, and (4) prompt treatment of disaster waste.

The first aspect “reduction of waste generation in disaster situations” is relevant to each of us. To prevent our properties from being damaged by quakes and becoming disaster waste, we can make our houses quake-resistant and fix furniture to walls. In flood-prone areas, we can move household goods to safer places as soon as we hear flood warnings. Our research team conducted a field survey in a city in Thailand that suffers from flooding almost every year, and found that local residents generally move valuable properties such as TV set to higher floors when water starts to enter their houses (Photo 1). In this respect, these residents are already resilient to floods. In terms of public health and prompt treatment of disaster waste, it is very important that residents follow pre-established rules (e.g., separation of waste, appropriate locations and time of waste collection). In other words, how we evacuate household goods and take out waste from our houses in the event of a disaster will determine "resilience" of regional waste management.

The other three aspects are more relevant to municipalities and waste treatment companies. The second aspect “minimization of disruption to waste management services” will be achieved if municipalities and waste treatment companies make incineration plants quake-resistant and relocate them from flood/tsunami-prone areas to safer areas so that waste collection vehicles will not be damaged by water. Regarding the third aspect, it is important that municipalities have a business continuity plan (BCP) in place. The municipal BCP should specify systems and procedures necessary for restoring regular municipal waste management service as promptly as possible. It should also specify which activities to prioritize, besides waste management service, among their environmental protection duties (e.g. air quality monitoring, etc.). With respect to the fourth aspect, it is necessary for municipalities to take the lead in formulating a disaster waste management plan (see our article in the May 2015 issue [in Japanese]), selecting treatment methods appropriate for each emergency situation, and implementing the plan. For this, they need to build a cooperative relationship with relevant waste treatment companies and neighboring municipalities, and develop human resources with highly specialized expertise in waste management.

Our team is engaged in various research activities to identify effective methods for enhancing resilience. The research topics include elaboration of steps for preparing disaster waste treatment plans and BCPs, identification of effective methods for transporting municipal and human waste in emergency situations, and development of training methods for waste management professionals. In addition, we have been developing indicators to evaluate and improve the current state of our “resilience” in a similar manner as we developed and applied the “performance indicators” for the sound material-cycle society. As more policy and research efforts need to be made, this key word “resilient” is an important term to remember.

Photo 1.
Photo 1. Measures for protecting household goods and reducing disaster waste. A flood-proof riverside house in a flood-prone city in Thailand with raised floor (left), and valuable goods kept on large long-legged tables in preparation for a flood (right).