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Events > Restless Earth > Altrincham Workshop

Year 10 Geography: The Restless Earth Workshop
by Neel Ghosh

I can remember distinctly the morning of March 11th this year; I was eating my breakfast and getting ready for school just as I would on any other day. But something on the early morning news caught my attention. A devastating earthquake had occurred off the east coast of Japan, and reports were beginning to surface that a colossal tsunami had obliterated much of Japanís coastline. I looked on in shock as footage of a city being submerged in just minutes was shown, and of a wall of water smashing through a seaside town. I was horrified. How could something so catastrophic happen so suddenly? Like many others, I felt a natural urge to help these people, who were shown in soaked rags standing outside the wrecked remains of their homes. What I didnít consider as carefully was what would happen to the money that we, back in England, had sent off: who would distribute it? What would it be used for? How would it get there? Here in Britain, itís very easy to make a donation and congratulate yourself, thinking ĎHey, Iíve just saved someoneís life!í But in reality, itís never that simple. It was through this workshop, organised by the British Cartographic Society, that it dawned on me just how extensive and thorough planning needs to be when youíre coordinating a relief effort and racing against the clock to save lives.

The workshop began with a short introduction by the Cartographic Society, who informed us of the important role maps play in real life disaster relief planning and military operations. After that, we were given our respective roles and given a short briefing on what each of them entailed. I was a medical officer, my job being to find suitable locations for field hospitals, to establish a medical command centre and to evaluate the effectiveness of existing hospitals in the Sendai area. With these tasks came a real sense of responsibility: I canít think of a more important job than to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those affected by the disaster. Therefore, I had to be sensible and conscientious in my choice of hospital locations. To help us make these crucial decisions, a variety of maps had been provided as well as access to the internet. Each map had unique features that made it useful: one showed elevation and terrain types which was useful because building on flat land is vital. Others showed Sendai City in detail, while another gave the various transport options to and around the city. However, each map came with its pitfalls: some dated back to 30 years ago and a few lacked important place names and reference points. By far the biggest hurdle however was that a few of the maps, and the most important ones at that, were written in Japanese. But we persevered, and deciphered the meanings of the characters. After one and a half hours, we were well on our way to completing our relief plan.

During relief operations there are a variety of organisations working together very closely, from the military and search and rescue teams to the people in charge of delivering vital supplies like food, medicine and water. As well as requiring there to be a lot of teamwork and cooperation in my group, it made us realise just how closely all these groups have to work in order for relief operations to be effective. A lack of communication, and a supplies manager could find his supply packages being dropped off in an airport 50 kilometres from where he needed to get them because the military chief wanted an airport big enough to hold all his C-130 planes. Just like in real life, compromises had to be reached. We had to find a balance between placing our buildings close to the disaster area but not in the flooded or radioactive zones, which took careful map reading and heated discussion over whether we should requisition a golf course in order to build a helicopter base. After considering the advice of some university students helping out in the workshop, and using out-of-the-box thinking to identify one of the aerial obstructions on the map for helicopter pilots as Fukushima Nuclear reactor with the help of a member to the Cartographic Society, our goal had been accomplished and weíd completed our map.

The workshop really made me realise how naÔve it was to think that by throwing money at a disaster we could just make it disappear. Behind the scenes, there is a huge amount of planning going on to cover every single detail of a relief operation, because in situations like these where itís crucial that there are no errors, maps are our greatest tool. Itís through the power of cartography and mapping that relief operations like the one in Japan have been successful. Truly, maps do save lives.





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