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Leading article: The only lesson we can draw from nature's destruction

Hokusai's masterpiece, The Great Wave of Kanagawa, is probably the most famous image that Japan has given to the world.

But yesterday, a great wave turned from the stuff of national pride to the image of a national nightmare. The most powerful earthquake to hit Japan since records began struck 24km off the coast of north-eastern Japan at mid-afternoon. This huge tremor triggered a colossal tsunami. A 10m-high moving wall of water devastated coastal towns in the prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima. Television pictures showed the giant wave sweeping cars, ships, even entire buildings before it.

It is a human impulse in such circumstances to search for an explanation – something that can give a natural disaster some human meaning. But it is a futile search. There is no morality in plate tectonics. Some parts of the world are simply more prone to natural disasters than others.

Yet not all nations in the globe's natural risk zone are equal. Japan is one of the richest nations on the planet. And recent years have confirmed that high-income nations generally cope better with natural disasters than poor ones. The death toll from yesterday's quake and tsunami will be at least 1,000. Japanese police yesterday reported the discovery of 200 to 300 bodies. Some 500 people are missing. There were awful stories: a ship carrying dock workers was swept away in Miyagi; an entire passenger train in the prefecture is also missing.

But the death toll is nowhere near as big as it would have been if a magnitude 8.9 earthquake had hit off the coast of a poorer nation. In the 2010 Haiti quake, the fragile slums of Port-au-Prince collapsed, killing more than 200,000 people. Sichuan province in China was struck by an earthquake in 2008 which killed 70,000. One of the reasons the death toll was so high was that jerry-built public schools, constructed with the knowledge of corrupt officials, collapsed.

The Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 left an estimated 230,000 dead. There was no system in place to warn other South Asian islands of the incoming tsunami after the 9.1 magnitude super quake off the west coast of Sumatra. Japan's own history shows that income matters in the face of nature's destructive tendencies. The 1923 Great Kanto earthquake in Japan was smaller than yesterday's, but ended up killing 140,000. The difference is that Japan is now wealthier. Japan has invested its wealth in safety.

In 1995, a quake of 6.8 magnitude struck in the city of Kobe and killed 6,500. The cost of the damage was equivalent to 2.5 per cent of Japan's GDP at the time. The official response was erratic. The circumstances now are different. The epicentre of the Kobe quake was in an urban area; this time it was out at sea. Nevertheless, the official response appears to have been dramatically better. Four nuclear power stations were automatically shut down when the earthquake occurred. And the damage is less severe than in 1995 since the government increased its spending on earthquake-resistant building structures. Preparation and planning have saved thousands of lives. In our search for meaning, that is probably the only lesson that can be drawn. All mankind can do, when it comes to natural disasters, is prepare itself to cope better when the nightmare becomes reality.