Cash from British Red Cross donors kick-started work to rebuild lives devastated by last year’s Japanese tsunami, one of the most senior leaders in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has said. Speaking during a visit to London, Tadateru Konoe said the generosity of international donors had brought forward Japanese Red Cross programmes that are helping people recover after the disaster.
The president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, who is also the president of the Japanese Red Cross, said: “First of all we thought we could manage by ourselves. But we were flooded with goodwill from all over the world. We had to develop different programmes using all this money. Our intervention was initially limited to the emergency phase. But with all this money from abroad we could quickly enter the rehabilitation and reconstruction phases.”
An earthquake and tsunami struck north-eastern Japan in March 2011, causing waves which reached heights of up to 40 metres to crash inland and kill about 20,000 people. The disaster left millions of households without electricity and water, destroyed about 45,000 buildings and polluted the environment after the Fukushima nuclear plant was damaged. The British Red Cross launched an emergency appeal that eventually raised an estimated £14.2m for tsunami victims.
Mr Konoe said the areas devastated by the tsunami, which he visited days after the disaster, were “an incredible sight”. Despite the chaotic situation, with roads blocked, a shortage of information and local authorities not functioning, the Japanese Red Cross mobilized 19 medical teams within hours to provide emergency healthcare. This was made easier because, unlike its British counterpart, the Japanese Red Cross runs its own permanent hospitals.
Mr Konoe compared the challenge to the organisation in the days after the tsunami to that faced by Red Cross founder Henry Dunant, when he tried to organise relief for wounded soldiers after the battle of Solferino in 1859 with little outside help. Despite the difficult environment, where many of its own volunteers were victims of the disaster, the Japanese Red Cross was able to offer immediate support including medical relief operations, psychosocial counselling and hand-outs of emergency supplies like food and water.
Smile parks and social support
Recovery projects launched by the organisation included social support for older and disabled people, and temporary bus services that help children get to schools. Other schemes included the Red Cross ‘smile park’, a special indoor play area in Fukushima. This was welcomed by victims like mum Yukie Moriguchi, who said her children could no longer go to the park or swimming pool because of worries about radiation from the nearby power station.
During his visit to British Red Cross headquarters on 30 May, Mr Konoe also paid tribute to murdered Red Cross worker Khalil Dale who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan earlier this year. Mr Konoe said he was very sad to hear of the Briton’s death – but added “we must be prepared for this kind of eventuality”.
Mr Konoe, who has been Federation president since 2009, said the Red Cross has to adapt to a changing world with more natural disasters caused by climate change and more complex political situations. He said distinctions between conflicts, peacetime and natural disasters were becoming blurred – which would challenge the way the Red Cross movement helped people in crisis. He also predicted global financial problems would make things more difficult for the Red Cross, in Europe and elsewhere.