Environmental Crises Collide in Japan

To imagine what survivors face in Japan seems almost impossible. News photos and videos attempt to capture and encapsulate the destruction. We click through feeling compassion and disbelief, trying to understand the experiences of those who have lived and how many are gone. So far, the media has reported the slowly rising death toll as close to 3,000 -- even as whole towns, like Sendai pictured above, list missing persons well beyond that number. Bodies are washing up on shore. Already 400,000 to 500,000 survivors are displaced.

As search and rescue teams wade through what already looks like complete devastation how did they find much less help those who survived? Miraculous stories emerge of a 60-year-old man riding his roof for two days after drifting nine miles out to sea. A survivor is pulled from the rubble after four days. In the picture below, a Red Cross volunteer feeds an infant who was rescued.

Yet, on top of aftershocks climbing as high as 6.0 after the initial 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami reaching heights of 30 feet, now radiation releases are strengthening as a third explosion has rocked the Ukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Northeastern Japan. In the face of already two catastrophic environmental disasters, Japan now risks what seems to be an escalating man-made third. Major news sources have started conjuring memories of nuclear meltdowns at facilities such as Three Mile Island in 1979, an accident that caused my own family to evacuate, including my mother who was almost nine months pregnant with me, and also the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Currently, how much radiation or how great the impact on Japan's public health remains unfolding, but there is no doubt converging crises are mounting every single day.

According to Agence-France Press, this morning the World Health Organization (WHO) cited they are ready to assist Japan in any way possible if and when help is needed.

"We have expressed our availability to participate in a mission, to offer necessary assistance, if it is required, " said Maria Neira, the UN health agency's director of public health and environment.

"We are ready," she added.

The question is: When will WHO be called on for assistance? Already basic supplies run low, survivors are being evacuated from areas listed as dangerous due to escalating radiation levels, and reports of radiation exposure are climbing, hence the crucial need for health agencies to step in and assist. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the rescue effort is currently being led by the Japanese government along with local aid groups with extensive disaster response experience, including expert support from fifteen countries. The IRC was not able to respond to the disaster due to red tape when they could not get necessary papers from the British Embassy.

"Our emergency team members are on standby to respond and fill in gaps as needed," says Gillian Dunn, the IRC's director of emergency response programs.

"In the meantime, we are starting direct assistance to Japanese aid groups with better access to communities in need and survivors who have been evacuated."

As multiple crises evolve in Japan, all resources need to be pulled on to help in every capacity. Last month, New Zealand experienced a 7.0 earthquake that caused between $7 to $11 billion dollars in damage. Comparing Japan's present situation lends some perspective to how much support the challenged country needs.

Photo credit: Reuters