Flirting with natural disasters

With the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) starting in Sendai later this week, we caught up with Kaori Yasuda who grew up in Japan and has spent a lifetime living with and helping people in disaster-prone regions. 

Nomo Hantō Prefectural Natural, Nagasaki

Kaori, who works as a Bilateral Relations Officer in Strategic Partnerships in IUCN's Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office (ESARO) in Nairobi, Kenya, has spent most of her life leaping from one natural disaster to the next. Whether it was earthquakes in Tokyo, typhoons in Nagasaki or the tsunami which tragically took the lives of some of her relatives in Iwate, life has never been easy for her.

By day she is responsible for mobilising resources for the ESARO’s flagship programme initiatives and taking the lead and supporting the development of IUCN’s strategic partnerships with key donors globally. Her life outside work, however, makes most Hollywood blockbusters pale into insignificance. IUCN's GPAP team put on its hard hat and met Yasuda to find out more...

What motivated you to work in conservation?
I simply love nature. I specialised in sustainable tourism and ecotourism for my Master’s degree and quickly realised one of the real tourism attractions in life is nature. After that I think it was inevitable that I would work in nature and conservation.

How have natural disasters affected your life?
I was born and raised in Tokyo and Nagasaki in Japan so, as is the case for most Japanese people, natural disasters are imprinted in my DNA because it is one of the most disaster prone countries. There are times when there are earthquakes every day of the week so you almost get used to them. I remember when I was in an elementary school in Tokyo, whenever earthquakes happened, we were immediately hiding under the school desks. I spent my later school days in Nagasaki where typhoons and hurricanes happened throughout the summer. Due to heavy rain, flooding and landslides, schools were often closed. We used to have training sessions for natural disasters every year to make sure we could deal with the earthquakes.

Is there one event which stands out from all the rest?
Without doubt it was the Great East Japan Earthquake in March, 2011. My sister and brother in law were in Tokyo at that time. Their office was destroyed and all public transport was stopped. They walked five hours to get home. My mother is from Iwate, and due to the tsunami, we had lost three relatives who lived in a coastal city of Otsuchi, Iwate. It was a difficult time for the family and for all of Japan. In July 2012, I had the chance to visit some of the affected sites in Sendai and Minamisanriku – the recovery and reconstruction efforts still had a long way to go. They never found the bodies of my relatives. I got to visit the site which was hit. The area was still struggling to recover one and a half years later. It probably took three years to fully recover. Incidents like this make you realise how important it is to spend the money in the right areas to help communities. It is important to get the member states to invest in the prevention. For me healthy ecosystems are a key part of the strategy to protect the community.

How did these personal experiences affect you?
These experiences inspired me to work on nature based solutions (NBS) for disaster risk reduction (DRR). It is a real honour to be part of the IUCN delegation at the WCDRR and to visit Sendai again to emphasise the importance of the role of ecosystems in supporting the affected communities to prepare for, cope with, and recover from disaster situations. 

From the DRR case studies you have helped put together which country do you think the world should look to as a good example of DRR?
I am slightly biased but I think the best example is Japan. Japan is prone to natural disasters so we need to be prepared. We also understand that you need to live in harmony with nature. They do small things like plant trees to act as a buffer and we are a nation which stays in touch with the mother nature. I think having a respect for nature ensures are more balanced approach. 

From all your experience what advice would you give to any developing countries which are prone to natural disasters?
I think developing countries can learn that nature based solutions and healthy eco-systems can help reduce the impact of natural disasters. For example, I now work in Africa and I have become aware that Mozambique is prone to Natural Disasters, but has a potential to integrate NBS to Disaster Risk Reduction. Ten years ago they may not have considered NBS but now in fact, the government is interested in learning about ecosystem-based Disaster Risk Reduction (Eco-DRR) from IUCN. For all these countries, the environment is part of the solution. They often need to change their mindset. The environment ministry are sometimes not involved in the big decisions around DRR. They like to introduce grey infrastructure instead of trees and mangroves. They need to stop looking grey solutions look at green ones.

What is the most important thing people should know about protected areas/the areas they live in?

People need to learn to have respect for the spiritual value of nature. It is important to keep reminding ourselves that we people are part of nature. People take for granted that we are surrounded by nature. We should value how much benefit we receive from nature. Over 40% of medicines come from nature. We should value how much spiritual – being out in nature cleanses the spirit. It’s a natural remedy.

What is your favourite protected area?
Nomo Hantō Prefectural Natural Park is the place I used to go to escape. The park was established in 1955. It is located in the southern tip of Nagasaki, surrounded by the ocean. In January, the whole area is covered with the bed of narcissus flowers. I really enjoy the scenic beauty of the ocean and smell of the narcissus flower. Sometimes, my family also enjoy a hot spring (Japanese spa) overlooking the ocean there. I come from an island and I have always been much happier when I am surrounded by water.

Who has been the most inspirational person you have met connected to nature and conservation?
It is not a 'person', but the most inspirational living creature I have met who is connected to nature and conservation was my family dog Koro. She was truly enjoying interaction with nature. Every night, she was so excited as if she were going to go on a world trip when we were taking her for a walk in our neighbourhood after dinner. She took us to all the undiscovered places, passages, and empty lands. Koro was very intuitive and knew how to listen to her inner spirit. She liked to sleep outside in our garden and I would often find her lying under the spotlight of the moon. She would even keep changing her place according to the moon!

How do you wish planet earth to be 50 years from now?
A simpler place where we can truly appreciate value of and interaction with nature.

For more information on IUCN Disaster Risk Reduction work please contact [email protected] 

Work area: 
Disaster Risk Reduction
Protected Areas
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