Harnessing mother nature and hi-tech on road to recovery

opinion July 09, 2014 00:00

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The Nation's Thasong Asvasena looks into Japan's post-tsunami situation three years after the 2011 tragedy, focusing on recovery projects and disaster-prevention efforts, in the first of a series of stories to run in other sections of the paper

Tohoku, Northeastern Japan
When it comes to preparedness for earthquakes and their aftermath, few countries are doing it better than Japan. And in the country that coined the word “tsunami”, measures to combat “harbour waves” that have wrought devastation here for centuries are now as efficient and cutting edge as anything seen anywhere else in the world.
While mechanisms are now in place or being developed to cope with future tsunamis, the recovery is well underway in the northeastern coastal areas hit by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, including Miyagi and Iwate – the two prefectures that bore the brunt of the waves along with Fukushima. 
Tsunami-impacted business – especially the fishing industry – is also being revitalised through adaptation, improvisation and self-improvement, while restoration of the marine environment and ecology is also underway with the help of universities who are experts in the fields. Tourism, a major industry throughout the northeastern region of Tohoku, is seeing visitor numbers and spending return to levels enjoyed prior to the 2011 twin disasters of earthquake and tsunami.
Stories of heroics, inspirational acts and miraculous survivals abound from the time of the tsunami and are told again and again by those who made it through the tragedy, helping them to look the future rather than linger over the grief of the past.
Delays and setbacks, though, are an ever-present feature of the various recovery and restoration projects. That’s no surprise given the high costs and colossal scale of work, which is being funded jointly by the government, the public and private sectors, with little sign of malpractice or bureaucratic red tape.
The most expensive and difficult work is bringing land back to its old level in the vast residential areas of towns in Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures, where the surge gouged an average 10 metres in depth. Only after the painstaking, expensive and lengthy landfill work is done can the expensive construction of numerous homes begin, surely at a much higher cost by then.
A lack of manpower and higher costs of construction and materials are the main factors behind the delay, in addition to budget constraints caused by huge spending on the 2020 Summer Olympics, which Japan will host. 
The focus is also on better disaster protection. The Tokyo-based Japanese Meteorology Agency (JMA) – the national weather service and alarm-raiser tasked with forecasting and detecting coming earthquakes and tsunami – has upgraded its technology, altered and tightened its early-warning system and redesigned its bulletins so that warnings urge people to evacuate as appropriate. And it had all of this in place within two years of the disaster.
The agency made one small but crucial change to its rule for tsunami warnings – leaving out the predicted height of the waves. If the predicted height were too low, it would mean residents at risk were more reluctant to evacuate. Such predictions are likely to be inaccurate for events on the scale of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake – the strongest recorded quake to have hit Japan, said Takeshi Koizumi, a senior JMA official.
Also part of preventive efforts is a project to create a huge defensive barrier comprising various types of trees in Iwanuma City, Miyagi Prefecture. This wooded beachfront defence is designed to protect Sendai Airport and the surrounding coastal areas that were heavily flooded in 2011.
The Great Forest Wall Project consists of a 10-metre-high embankment formed of disaster debris and sediment to be built along the 300km coastline from Aomori to Fukushima Prefectures. Topped off with various types of broadleaf trees, the resulting 30-metre-high wall of earthworks and forest will protect against future tsunamis, said Makoto Nikkawa, the director of Re-use of Debris, a Public Interest Incorporated Foundation.
Broad-leaf trees are being used as a stronger alternative to pines, many of which were uprooted during the 2011 disaster and did further damage as they smashed into buildings and property.
The tree seawall is expected to cut the power of tsunamis by 50 per cent and reduce undertow dangers.
The site for the Great Forest Wall is mostly farmland, which has been bought by the government using public funds. But around 90 million saplings now need to be planted along the 300km stretch of embankment, requiring public donations to the tune of 500 yen apiece, and free manpower from the local communities.
The embankment is to be built behind long lines of breakwater, which will be either rebuilt or repaired depending on the damage they sustained during the tsunami. Nikkawa said the embankment and tree corridor was needed as it would last longer and be cheaper than concrete barriers.
The writer travelled to Japan last month at the invitation of the Foreign Press Center / Japan (http://fpcj.jp/en)