On March 11, at 2:46 pm Tokyo time, a 9-magnitude earthquake struck the East Asian country. Even as the Japanese people were trying to figure out the destruction caused by the quake, a huge wall of water (tsunami) devastated the country’s northeast. The woes did not end there for the country located in the Pacific Ocean. The humanitarian disaster became even more complicated with the mounting concerns over possible radiation leaks from two nuclear plants near the earthquake zone. It is a difficult moment for Japan, as the country is facing the world`s most dangerous atomic crisis in 25 years.
The death toll from tsunami and earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in Japan, has crossed 10,000 mark. In fact, Japanese government’s estimate suggests the cost of damage from earthquake and tsunami could top USD 300 billion, making it the world`s costliest natural disaster ever.
The fear of radiation leak from Fukushima Daiichi plant has overshadowed the damage caused by quake and tsunami. From food to tap water, the quake-sparked nuclear crisis is becoming serious.
In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, Shamshad Khan, an expert on Japan, discussed the crisis faced by the East Asian country and its ramifications in terms of economy and safety.
Kamna: How serious is the situation in Japan? I am particularly concerned about food radiation.
Shamshad: As you know Japan is grappling with the nuclear crisis caused by 9-magnitude earthquake and the tsunami that devastated wide areas in northeastern Japan and is becoming increasingly severe. The latest news is that radiation in the water near reactor No. 2 has risen to more than 1,000 millisieverts an hour, the highest reading so far. Since single dose of 1,000 millisieverts is enough to cause haemorrhaging; the workers working near the plant have been withdrawn. The radiation is expected to spread to nearby areas and may pose danger to environment and human beings. As regards food radiation, the Japanese authorities have banned consumption of spinach, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, green onions, and cucumbers, tomatoes after detecting that these produce from Fukushima and nearby areas surpassed the legal limits of radioactive material set under Japan’s food sanitation law. The situation may lead to food shortage as tsunami-affected Tohoku region (including Fukushima) was second in producing vegetable in Japan after the northernmost Hokkaido prefecture. Similarly, water has also been contaminated and the contamination in few areas reached up to 210 becquerel per Kg slightly, less than 300 becquerel per Kg which is considered hazardous for health. This led to shortage of water bottles in few areas as panicked citizens horded water bottles. But the consignments of water bottles from South Korea have saved the situation as of now.
Kamna: How do you rate Japanese authorities’ response to the crisis?
Shamshad: The Japanese government with the help of local bodies is handling the situation efficiently. The deployment of more than 100,000 troops of its Self Defence Force for rescue operations in affected areas ensured swift evacuation of affected people. The calm and orderly behaviour of effected people also helped meet the challenges posed by crisis. More people have voluntarily left the tsunami and radioactive affected areas. However, the authorities are finding it difficult to accommodate these people in make-shift rehabilitation centres and the fear of radioactive radiation reaching far off areas is making the situation worse for them.
Kamna: In the wake of the crisis in Japan, China urged the international community to help its neighbour prevent the nuclear crisis from worsening. How do you see this change in the attitude of Beijing?
Shamshad: China was able to take better stock of the situation at the ground as its Foreign Minister visited Japan in the wake of the crisis to participate in a pre-scheduled trilateral meeting of foreign ministers from China, South Korea and Japan. China’s call to the international community to help its neighbour was a goodwill gesture also as Chinese Foreign Minister was in Japan in the wake of this crisis as well as a quid pro quo to Japan’s help in 2008 Sichuan earthquake that devastated a large region of China. This is certainly a change in Beijing’s attitude towards its neighbour which is battling with the crisis. But this is no guarantee that China will change its stance over some historical issues and the dispute over resource rich Senkaku islands. March 11 natural and nuclear disaster is unlikely to change Chinese deep-rooted nationalist sentiment against Japan.
Kamna: How do see the response of the international community, especially India, to the Japan crisis?
Shamshad: The response from the international community both at the governmental and non-governmental level has been unprecedented. India’s help by offering blankets immediately after the tsunami went unnoticed in Japan as there was no mention of the fact by the Japanese media. However, the visit by the Indian Prime Minister to Japan’s embassy in New Delhi and personally offering condolence has sent a signal to the Japanese that India feels as bereaved as other members of the international community over the death of Japanese people and the devastation that unfolded following the quake.
India has also sent a team of its National Disaster Response Force recently which is lending its help in relief missions in tsunami and radiation affected areas. This mission is likely to generate more goodwill and will have a lasting impact on Indo-Japan relations as a whole.
Kamna: Japan quake is said to be the world’s costliest natural disaster. Do you think the world`s third largest economy will be able to absorb the stress of huge reconstruction costs?
Shamshad: It is Japan’s costliest disaster indeed. Initially, it was estimated that it will cost roughly USD 100 billion in reconstruction work but now it is said that it will cost around JPY 25 trillion (USD 303 billion), roughly 5% of Japan’s GDP. Japan has to incur up to three times which it bore to reconstruct Kobe following the 1995 earthquake. Japan would not be able to meet the cost alone. Apart from the donation and contribution coming from countries, individuals have been sending donation to different agencies in Japan through Internet, which was not the case in previous calamities that struck the country. Various donation websites are taking advantage of the Internet to organise people’s humanitarian efforts.
Kamna: How long do you think will Japan take to contain the crisis?
Shamshad: Japan could have tackled the crisis in three to five years, had it been limited to earthquake and tsunami. It rebuilt the entire Kobe city, which was almost reduced to rubble in the 1995 earthquake, in two years. But the crisis has compounded with a meltdown of its nuclear reactors at Fukushima and radiation leakages. The after-effects would be for longer period. The quake has already disrupted Japan’s nuclear generation capacity and would take time to restore that facility. Farmers are already showing reluctance to go back to their farming land and it is not sure how much land has been contaminated from radiation. So it may take a decade to contain the crisis. But since Japan has rebuilt the country after Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombing and considering the fact that the crisis is lower as compared to the nuke bombing, it is hoped that Japan will rebuild itself. There is no doubt about that.