It has been over a year since the Great East Japan Earthquake turned thousands of lives upside down,  and many months since heavy monsoon floods devastated Thailand. During that time research institutes in both countries have made remarkable efforts to join together and recover from what many would regard as a hopeless situation.

On 11 March 2011 Japan experienced a triple disaster: the most violent earthquake the country has ever seen followed by a powerful tsunami and the world’s most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Over 15,000 people lost their lives and thousands were left homeless. A few months later in July 2011, record levels of monsoon flooding hit Thailand, causing widespread devastation.

The media described many of the destructive effects on civilians, but how did the disasters affect research communities in Thailand and Japan? ResearchSEA spoke to several research institutes about how the events of last year affected them, and how they are recovering.

Despite experiencing power outages, damage to costly equipment and the mass exodus of overseas students and staff, the ability of these institutes to adapt to and cope with extraordinary circumstances is commendable. Moreover, positive changes are being made in a bid reduce the impact of future disasters.


Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus was inundated with 2 m of water for several weeks.

Thammasat University, Thailand

The university’s largest campus, situated around 42 km north of Bangkok, was the largest evacuation site of the 2011 floods. The entire campus area was inundated with 2 m of water, which caused almost US$ 100 million worth of damage to all ground floor areas.

The campus remained closed for months, and the start of the next academic semester had to be postponed until 2012.

National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), Thailand

Thanks to early warning systems, NSTDA had a week to prepare for the floods hitting its campus. They dealt with the impending disruption quickly and effectively, evacuating staff and students, and moving expensive equipment to higher storeys where it was safe. They provided alternative office spaces for staff, so that even at the peak of the floods the facility could continue to operate at normal capacity. Nevertheless, various research projects were suspended, as many laboratories were inaccessible, and the NSTDA Campus itself was completely out of action for several weeks.

The floods did provide unique opportunities for innovation. Among recent inventions by NSTDA scientists are ‘magic pants’ (lightweight waterproof trousers sealed at the feet which enable wading through deep water); sand bag substitutes which use absorbent hydro-gels, and an environmentally friendly mud-cleaning detergent.

NSTDA’s president Hugh Thaweesak Koanantakool told ResearchSEA about the new measures put in place to safeguard against future floods. “We are collaborating with Thammasat University, our next door neighbour,” he said, “building a strong flood barrier which should withstand the flood level about 0.5 m above that of 2011.” Construction work for this project started in April, and will be completed in time for this year’s monsoon season.

National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) Library, Japan

Though the buildings were earthquake-proof and structural damage was minimal, the disaster still took its toll on NIMS.

Many research projects ground to a halt due to damaged laboratory equipment, loss of power and a cutback in government spending following theearthquake. Many overseas students and researchers chose to return home to avoid the  disruption and exposure to radiation, leaving the institute short-staffed. In the following months, NIMS formed a number of collaborations to help share resources until libraries and other facilities could be restored.

“A number of major publishers offered NIMS assistance in the form of free access to their journals and databases,” explained Mikiko Tanifuji, the general manager of NIMS’s Scientific Information Office, “And Tokyo University immediately established a unified authentication system that allowed library consortia member universities to access their online journals.”

In preparation for future crises, NIMS are currently integrating their print and electronic library resources with the ultimate aim of establishing a centralised online library, accessible even when the NIMS library system is down in a blackout.

National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Japan

electron microscope

A broken electron microscope at AIST. ©AIST

AIST’s Tsukuba headquarters were caught in the midst of the earthquake, and one of the buildings suffered severe structural damage. At the Sendai headquarters it took six days for power to return. In both hubs infrastructure recovery was very slow, as high-tech scientific equipment worth millions of dollars were damaged. Not even the waste water pipelines running from labs were spared.

Research activities were suspended for a month, andit took until August 2011 to repair all  the structural damage. However, AIST has played an extremely active role in rebuilding the region as a whole, helping to monitor radiation levels,  sharing resources and providing shelterand outreach to local people. They even provided AIST’s therapeutic ‘Paro’ robot seals to evacuation shelters in Tsukuba City to help comfortlocal people.

Masahiro Aoki from the Geological Survey of Japan told ResearchSEA that as well as causing large scale damage, the earthquake also encouraged innovation. “During the obliged break [from research] a sort of ‘evolution’ commenced,” he said.

“Scientists started planning research to be more productive, less time and pace consuming, more interactive among scientists, and safer for future earthquakes.”

Tohoku University Library, Japan

Tohoku University Library

Tohoku University Medical Library, March 14th 2011. ©Tohoku University Library

When the earthquake struck, around 400 people were using Tohoku University library, one of the largest and oldest libraries in Japan. Thankfully they all safely evacuated the building amidst what can only be described as a book avalanche. It took only a few minutes of tremors to topple over 2 million books off their shelves, a heartwrenching sight for library users and staff.

The restoration process was extremely labour-intensive. Much restoration work was undone when massive aftershock hit on 7 April, but thanks to thetireless round-the-clock efforts of staff and over 1000 volunteer students the main library  and its four branch libraries (Medical, Science, Engineering and Agricultural) were fully functional again after just three months: a truly incredible achievement. Medical library staff Kayo Sakamoto and her colleagues told ResearchSEA that they hope to prevent this kind of damage in the future by fitting safety stopperson bookshelves, remarking that during an earthquake books can be transformed into dangerous weapons!

For further information contact:

Mikiko Tanifuji
NIMS, Japan
Dr Yoshinori Miyazaki
AIST, Japan
Dr Masahiro Aoki
Geological Survey of Japan, AIST
Aiko Watanabe
Tohoku University Library, Japan
Dr Hugh Thaweesak Koanantakool
NSTDA, Thailand
Dr Supreedee Rittironk
Thammasat University, Thailand