The director of Drexel’s Mobilities Research and Policy Center attended a workshop at the World Bank Headquarters in Tokyo Jan. 17-18 to collaborate with other experts about the implications of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan.
Mimi Sheller, a professor of sociology at Drexel, was chosen as part of a team assembled by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute. She worked alongside 11 other experts from around the world who specialize in different, relevant fields. The workshop brought together the director of civil engineers for the Army Core of Engineers, geophysicists, tsunami experts, urban planners, architects and the past president of EERI.
The team was joined in Tokyo by delegates of the World Bank’s Global Facilities for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and around 25 Japanese officials — some from the government and some who were directly involved in the disaster response process.
Sheller’s expertise in the field of mobilities research helped bring a social science perspective to the workshop. Her research focuses on how disasters affect the ability to move people and goods.
“[Disasters] knock out our transportation systems, energy systems, power systems and communication systems, and my work is partly about those kinds of infrastructures and systems and how people use them and engage with them culturally,” Sheller said. “It’s a new connection to disaster research and disaster preparedness that has brought together my interests.”
The group discussed various aspects of natural disasters, including ways to reduce risk, emergency response preparedness and reconstruction. Because there is little that can be done to prevent a natural disaster, the reaction time of the emergency responders and the recovery process is key in preventing the collapse of the affected area.
Sheller previously worked on a National Science Foundation-funded project with several Drexel engineering professors after the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. The experience furthered her understanding of the social aspect of natural disasters.
From a social science standpoint, Sheller believes in the importance of community involvement. She says outsiders may not always understand the cultural needs of a population and therefore cannot just expect to rebuild without any inside input.
“That was a project on local participation in rebuilding water and sanitation infrastructure. … It was exciting that our engineers at Drexel were not interested in just going in and building something, … but they were really interested in the social process in which people in a community take part in decision making and figuring out what their needs are and what would best meet those needs,” Sheller explained.
After working in the aftermath of the disaster in Haiti, she was well equipped to contribute to the workshop in Tokyo.
Attendees worked on editing and revising a document prepared by the World Bank in order to help developing countries plan and prepare for inevitable natural disasters. There will be one additional meeting held in May before the final document is presented at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which is scheduled for October and will be held in Tokyo.
As a developed country, Japan has enough resources and funding to survive a disaster of that magnitude. Developing countries will have a harder time dealing with a natural disaster because they have lower budgets and ill-equipped governments for such a task.
“We’re trying to develop suggestions and ideas for developing countries where they may not have very much government capacity and they may not have the kind of funding available that Japan had. A huge challenge globally is to be able to prepare for disaster in countries where people are already struggling to get water and sanitation and things like that,” Sheller said.
There is hope for developing countries because even though they may currently be underfunded and poorly prepared for a disaster, they still can make the necessary reforms. Sheller believes that if other countries invest in sustainable development options, there is a good chance of reducing vulnerability for future disasters.
“To mitigate the impact of major disasters, we need to help build resilient communities that can plan for social equity and sustainability and work gradually on moving people out of dangerous situations,” she said.