Opening Remarks of Dr Shin Young-soo WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific International Conference on Health Sector Recovery from Disasters

Morioka City, Japan
5 March 2013


It is an honour to be here at Iwate Medical University and to open this conference on how the health sector can recover from disasters.

It is a topic that is near and dear to all of us — especially our gracious hosts.

In this Region, we see more than our fair share of disasters. So we need to be more prepared than ever — prepared to minimize damages and chaos from disasters, and prepared to quickly rebuild infrastructure and systems after disasters.

Even with the best preparation, however, there are no guarantees.

Perhaps no country was better prepared than Japan. Yet the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami still caused almost inconceivable devastation.

As we sit here now in this peaceful conference hall —surrounded by the natural beauty of the Iwate Prefecture — it is hard to imagine the magnitude of damage and suffering people have endured because of that terrible disaster.

During my visit after the disaster, the sense of loss was overpowering.

Families were trying to figure out how to rebuild their lives.

Many lost their homes. Many lost loved ones. Cities that were models of order were in pieces.

But what stood out most in people wasn't the suffering. What I remember most was the hope people had.

They were determined to recover and rebuild their lives and their country. In many ways, their spirits were never stronger.

When we take a step back, we understand that we cannot control nature.

But we can minimize suffering through preparedness.

In recent years, the Asia Pacific region has experienced some tremendous natural disasters, such as those in China, Japan, New Zealand and the Philippines.

In each case, we try to learn how to prepare better, to ease the suffering and help rebuild the lives of those hit hardest.

It is an old saying that we cannot predict the future, but we can prepare for it.

Time and time again, we see the importance of investing in prevention and preparedness in times of calm.

We learn how to rebuild better and safer after crises.

Indeed, it is time for a paradigm shift on emergencies — from "reactive" response to "proactive" management of risk.

As painful as they are, every disaster is a learning opportunity.

Recovery is an opportunity for the health sector to rebuild better. And by "better", I mean with improved access for all.

The needs of vulnerable populations can be addressed better by increasing access and quality of health services.

New service delivery models can be used to better respond to new emerging health needs.

Overall efficiency can be improved.

A recovery is also an opportunity to rebuild safer.

Disaster risk reduction measures can be taken to reduce suffering in the event of future disasters.

That is always our goal.

As I look out at the participants, I see many familiar faces — a room full of distinguished health professionals.

Sometimes, even as experts, we take for granted the importance of health within overall recovery efforts.

Finding the right way to include health on a long and complex recovery and reconstruction agenda is often not easy.

I guess that's why we need so many experts here!

We are confident that health deserves a high place on the overall recovery agenda.

Health is an important goal in and of itself, and it enables other sectors to recover better.

At this meeting, we are looking for ways to improve this complex relationship and provide real-world solutions.

We are here to share experiences and document hard-learnt lessons from health sector recovery operations from disasters in Japan, China, New Zealand and Philippines, to name a few.

Working together — learning and supporting each other — is the key for success.

Thank you for coming, and I wish you a productive stay.