Japan, a land that is no stranger to earthquakes and from whose language the word ‘tsunami' is derived, is facing a natural calamity of unprecedented proportions. The magnitude 8.9 quake, one of the worst to have struck the country in a century, would have been trouble enough. Worse still, the quake occurred just 120 km offshore, resulting in a tsunami with waves many metres high that swiftly barrelled its way inland, producing some horrifying live television images. The unstoppable waters tossed boats aside, swept away cars and huge trucks, and left buildings marooned as they relentlessly continued to engulf more areas. Situated in one of the most seismically active regions of the world, Japan could turn itself into an economic powerhouse only by ensuring that its infrastructure was engineered to withstand quakes and its people endlessly drilled and prepared to face such eventualities. Although tall buildings in Tokyo swayed so much that their inhabitants were left feeling nauseous, they do not seem to have collapsed. The famed bullet trains promptly stopped running and many of the country's nuclear power plants were safely shut down. But human ingenuity and planning has its limits when facing the powers of nature. There are reports that there were problems in shutting down one nuclear power plant and a massive fire in an oil refinery sent thick clouds of smoke into the air. With tsunami warning and alerts issued to other nations ringing the Pacific Ocean, they braced themselves for a time of trial.
In Japan itself, the death toll will doubtless rise. There will inevitably also be the costs of destroyed houses, factories, farms, and various kinds of infrastructure to reckon with. It bears recall that the 1995 quake near the city of Kobe, with a magnitude of 6.9, killed more than 6,000 people and caused damage in excess of $100 billion. Decades earlier, in 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake set off vast fires that claimed close to 140,000 lives in Tokyo and surrounding areas. As brave, resilient, and resourceful Japan picks itself up and rebuilds from the latest devastation, it will learn lessons about where improvements need to be made. But this natural disaster raises issues that must concern countries like India too. As this country experiences rapid economic growth, how much of its vital infrastructure and buildings can withstand a powerful tremblor? After the experience of the 2004 quake and the huge tsunami that it unleashed, India has put in place its own tsunami warning system. Japan's experience shows that even with preparation, loss to life and property can be tremendous. Without such preparedness, however, the tragedy would be unimaginably greater.