Some of Fukushima’s children enjoy a retreat vacation away from radiation risk, organized by SHALOM, a local partner of CWS and UMCOR.
January 21, 2013—It is now nearly two years since a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, a massive tsunami and a horrifying nuclear catastrophe combined to create Japan’s worst natural disaster in modern history. Much recovery has been achieved, but for many people of Fukushima, where nuclear reactor plants exploded, the crisis is far from over.
More than 160,000 people are still displaced. Many who remain in the area are exposed to low-level radiation on an ongoing basis, and anxiety remains high. The effects of devastation linger, and the pace of rebuilding shattered livelihoods is slow.
Residents express consternation over what they see as sluggish progress in decontamination efforts, and many fear they will never have guarantees of health, food, and economic safety. Not least of the local communities' problems is that many of their agricultural products are denied access to markets because of suspicions about their safety, regardless of whether the products are actually contaminated or not.
UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, has renewed its support for the people of Fukushima, awarding a $250,000 grant to its international partner Church World Service. CWS is in turn working with a range of partners including JANIC (Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation), JEDRO (the Japanese National Council of Churches’ aid arm), and the Institute for Cooperative Networks at Fukushima University.
The plan is already well under way, with CWS’s Asia/Pacific division helping to identify and meet the outstanding humanitarian needs of survivor communities and speed up their physical, economic and psychosocial recovery. It also is assisting Japan's necessary country-wide improvement in its disaster-response mechanisms.
There is fresh determination to build up the capacity of the National Council Churches, including its humanitarian work through JEDRO, and to foster the regeneration of agriculture in Fukushima.
One important strategy is to produce accurate and easily understood mapping, showing just where radioactive material is, and is not, capable of affecting crops. The sharing of accurate data between organizations is vital to this effort. And the mapping will help to make the planned decontamination of affected farmers’ plots that much more effective.
The effort is encouraging greater communication between scientists and the public, as with a Citizen-Scientist International Symposium on Radiation Protection that was held for the first time last summer. About 400 people attended and a further 10,000 watched a live video stream on the internet.
The symposium disseminated emerging knowledge about radiation risks resulting from the disaster, and also served to heighten understanding of the serious long-term problems associated with radiation.
Melissa Crutchfield, UMCOR’s international development head, says: “UMCOR is pleased to be working with this phase of the CWS program. Having moved beyond immediate emergency relief, the program focuses on capacity strengthening of local partners and community awareness-raising—especially regarding the use of nuclear power and radiation’s true impact. And at the same time, there continues to be a focus on disaster risk reduction, which UMCOR makes a cornerstone of our strategic work all around the globe.”
One especially heartening element in this overall assistance package is the attention being paid to families with children. Many of Fukushima’s youngsters still living in low-radiation areas are understandably kept from playing outside by cautious parents who want to minimize the danger of exposure. Shalom, a local partner NGO, organizes retreats for the kids, to provide them some respite from the situation. Last summer, around 50 children from elementary schools and high schools went on a ten-day retreat to Hiroshima, the first of many such activities, it is hoped.
The children got to enjoy baseball games, visits to historic sites such as the Hiroshima Peace Park and the Itsukushima Shrine, and many other fun activities. One Fukushima mother wrote in her letter of thanks: “Though people say to me I am too nervous.… I have to watch over my son and accept the reality. I appreciate this kind of program very much.”
A gift to International Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #982450, will support communities like those of Fukushima that are building long-term recovery after disasters.
*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.