It can come as no comfort to the people of Japan as they count the cost in lives, property and damage to the countrys environment to consider that the massive earthquake was never a matter of if but always a matter of when. Located at the meeting point of three major tectonic plates, Japan is recognised as one of the most seismically active areas of the world. This particular earthquake ripped along a 500km segment between the Eurasian and Pacific plates causing massive tremors, numerous after-shocks and a 30ft tsunami wave. So was Japan prepared? Certainly, Japan has worked extremely hard to develop its risk reduction and response capabilities. Old buildings have been retrofitted and hardened against the lateral movement of earth tremors, and new structures have been carefully designed and constructed against tight building codes. Ingenious systems have been developed which allow the immediate shutting off of some power grids, gas pipe flows and rail systems to prevent additional disasters such as moving trains derailing and ruptured gas pipes exploding. Fire stations are fitted with doors that can open automatically on detecting the first tremor of an earthquake, to ensure that essential fire fighting services can get their vehicles out of the station when the quake has stopped. There are also widespread public awareness campaigns on earthquake evacuation drills and risk reduction initiatives in homes. Preparations for tsunamis focus on early warning systems, and these have included the use of specialised buoys at sea, and sirens and warning signals on land. The crucial aim of a tsunami early warning is to get the affected population to evacuate inland. Staring at our television screens today, we inevitably are struck by the enormity of what Japan is facing and ask questions. Why were vehicles still moving along coastal roads as the tsunami wave hit? Had the warnings been too late or were they ignored? Why did ships attempt to sail out to sea as the wave approached? As Japan responds to this disaster their government has sensibly called for external assistance. Key tasks will include the search for and rescue of people trapped in buildings or in flooded areas. Many thousands have been made homeless and will need shelter, food, medical care and support. Communication networks will be stretched as families and friends in Japan and overseas try to find out if their loved ones are safe. Casualty handling and tracking by the authorities will be a massive task as many are hospitalised, moved to reception centres or find shelter elsewhere, while the task of identifying the many dead will also need to begin. Richard Gordon is a civil defence and disaster management expert from Bournemouth University. Independent