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Tokyo faces 'catastrophic' earthquake risk

One year after the Kobe disaster: A report predicts up to 60,000 dead and pounds 2,100bn damage if Tokyo suffers the same fate


One year after the Kobe earthquake which killed 6,300 people, Tokyo faces an even greater disaster which could leave 60,000 dead and cause "staggering" economic losses, according to a new study.

The report, by Stanford University of California and an insurance research company, Risk Management Solutions, predicts what it calls "the largest catastrophic loss (in economic terms) in history" whose knock-on effects could shake the international markets, and raise interest rates around the world.

The research team considered the effects on the Tokyo area of a repeat of the great Kanto earthquake which killed 143,000 and razed two thirds of the city in 1923. It concluded that shaking and fires caused by the 7.9 magnitude quake would kill between 30,000 and 60,000 people, and seriously injure 80,000 to 100,000 others. Economic losses could reach$3,300bn (pounds 2,100bn). "The potential total economic loss is staggering ... 44-70 per cent of Japan's gross domestic product in 1994," the report concludes.

Seismically, 1995 was an alarming year, not just for Japan, but for the whole western Pacific Rim. In May, a town on the island of Sakhalin, in the Russian Far East, was destroyed by an intense, localised earthquake. Seismic activity throughout the Japanese archipelago has been unusually high, with tsunami (tidal wave) warnings issued after submarine quakes off the northern island of Hokkaido, as well as the Amami Islands in the far south.

On the precise scale and timing of a future Tokyo earthquake, there is little consensus, and the impossibility of accurate earthquake prediction in Kobe proved deadly. A 1972 study had predicted a tremor of magnitude 7, but the city authorities chose to believe other reports, and made emergency plans on the basis of a quake of maximum magnitude five. In the event, last January's disaster was 7.2; the inadequacy of the emergency response cost lives.

The report underlines the fact that, twelve months after Kobe, Japan's worst natural disaster since 1923, little has been achieved to diminish the impact of future catastrophes.

Some scientists argue that the Kanto earthquake, which has struck at roughly 70 year intervals for the past 300 years, is not inevitable, but all agree that Tokyo, one of the world's most densely populated areas, lies virtually on top of one of Japan's most seismically active zones. A plan is being studied, with the approval of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, to relocate the national government to a more stable city in the first quarter of the 21st century.

In the meantime, the process of reinforcing the city's buildings and roads is painfully slow. In Tokyo the concrete supports for the overhead expressways, which collapsed so spectacularly in Kobe, number 7,200. Two thousand are set to be reinforced, but the city authorities cannot say how many, if any, have so far been completed.

Even given an agreed earthquake magnitude, variables make the task of calculating casualties almost impossible. Compared to the Stanford University report, the Tokyo City Government predicts fatalities of just 9,400. The National Land Agency, on the other hand, cites a maximum figure of 350,000 killed or injured.

"If [the Kobe quake] happened during peak hours in Tokyo, one million would die, and all we could do is watch our houses burn," Professor Takayoshi Igarashi of Tokyo's Hosei University said. "There's only one lesson from Kobe, and that is that the government can do nothing."