IRC and Japanese aid partners offer a lifeline for tsunami survivors
With support from the IRC, the aid group Japanese Emergency NGO (JEN) is helping fishermen get back to work. These fishermen received aid to restart fish farms on the devastated Oshika peninsula. (Photo: Peter Biro/IRC)
Japan tsunami recovery
On Japan’s tsunami-devastated northeast coast, the IRC is helping Japanese aid groups support the elderly and people with disabilities; supply people living on remote islands with food, fuel, tents, blankets and other critical supplies; and help kick-start the fishing industry.
Story and photos by the IRC's Peter Biro (Published Mar. 6, 2012)
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By Peter Biro
RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan - The city of Rikuzentakata didn’t stand a chance. On March 11, 2011, a powerful tsunami generated by the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history literally wiped it from the map. The disaster obliterated the city's downtown, killed almost a tenth of its 23,000 people, and flattened the local economy.
One year later, tens of thousands of homeless survivors still live in evacuation centers in schools and in the few public buildings still standing. Bulldozers and trucks remain busy from dawn to dusk clearing away debris. Photo albums and other keepsakes recovered from the rubble are carefully placed near the entrances of shelters where survivors may claim them.
In the first days after the tsunami, local Japanese aid groups sprang into action. Three such groups—the Association for Aid and Relief Japan (AAR), Japan Emergency NGO (JEN) and Peace Winds Japan—formed a partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to help buttress and support their relief work in Rikuzentakata and other devastated cities and towns on Japan’s northeast coast.
The groups initially distributed fuel, blankets, food and other emergency items to evacuation centers. The priority soon shifted to rebuilding infrastructure and helping the unemployed find jobs. Japanese aid workers and counselors meanwhile launched programs to help survivors cope with the loss of loved ones, homes and livelihoods.
”Many survivors continue to show signs of severe stress from living under extreme living conditions,” says Masumi Honda, a program officer with AAR. “With the IRC’s support, we’ve been able to launch programs combining livelihoods projects with trauma counseling and physiotherapy.”
Along the battered coastline south of Rikuzentakata, aid groups are helping another group of survivors get back on their feet: fishermen, who for generations have made their living harvesting sea urchins, abalone and seaweed. The region boasts some of Japan’s richest fishing grounds and the tsunami struck just as the main fishing season was beginning, destroying ports, aqua farms and processing plants.
In the once thriving fishing village of Minami Sanriku, almost half the population of 9,500 perished in the tsunami. With their boats lost, those left behind are struggling to get by.
“I’ve lost everything,” says Kazumi Goto, pointing to the wreckage of his fishing boat marooned offshore. “The most important thing for this community is getting back to work.”
“The revival of the fishery industry is not only critical economically but it is also vital to people’s sense of identity, both as individuals and as a community,” says Shinko Tana, the IRC’s Japan advisor and liaison to the Japanese aid groups.
In response, the aid group and IRC partner JEN is helping fishermen in Minami Sanriku and other fishing villages manufacture new equipment, such as traditional nets and oars. In another project, JEN is providing tools and materials to repair the region’s famous aquaculture industry, which harvested scallops, wakame seaweed and oysters.
“The support we’ve received from the IRC has allowed us to respond to the needs here much quicker than we would have otherwise,” says Fumiko Tanaka, a program officer with JEN. “Reconstruction of this region has just started and JEN is committed to staying and supporting the affected people for as long as it takes.”
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