Japanese government must lead faster reconstruction effort
March 11 marked the second anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami that killed 15,881 people and left 2,668 others missing.No fewer than 315,000 people have been forced to live as evacuees, and about 160,000 of them are from Fukushima prefecture, where the nuclear crisis broke out at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima No 1 nuclear power plant.
Let us together pray anew for the repose of the victims' souls. Reconstruction from the disaster has been delayed, and the government must take the initiative in accelerating rebuilding efforts.
Behind the slow progress of rebuilding municipalities is the difficulty of forming a consensus among the residents concerned. Whether to locate a commercial and industrial zone on higher ground or in a coastal area is one example. Another problem is whether to build high seawalls that could effectively separate the land and the sea.
Residents of Natori, Miyagi prefecture, which was heavily damaged by the tsunami, wanted to rebuild where they lived rather than collectively relocate to an inland area. The municipal government plans to boost its reconstruction efforts by building a seawall and promoting changes in land use. But some residents oppose the plan.
The only way to push the plan ahead is to launch it without obtaining the full approval of some residents.
A redevelopment plan in coastal zones was decided at an early stage of reconstruction by such fishery cities as Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture, and Kesennuma and Ishinomaki, both in Miyagi prefecture.
As a senior Ishinomaki municipal government official put it, "As long as we cannot expect reconstruction without fishery business, we cannot desert the coastal areas."
Disaster victims commute from temporary housing to fishery processing factories and other workplaces, many of them no doubt worried about the reoccurrence of a tsunami.
Residents in Ishinomaki often say, "How can we strike a balance between earning income and being assured of our safety and security?" These words are compelling.
The mayor of one city resigned in the face of opposition to reconstruction programmes from residents and the municipal assembly. The past two years saw each local government and its residents explore ways to realise revival while facing their own predicaments.
About 110,000 people still live in prefabricated temporary housing units. A matter of concern is the increase in the number of residents who complain about stress and unease caused by their inconvenient daily life. Local governments must expedite construction of housing so that the affected residents can lead a stable life as early as possible.
The low spending rate for a tremendous amount of rehabilitation expenditures cannot be ignored. About 1.4 trillion yen earmarked for the current fiscal year by Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures and 34 municipalities cannot be implemented before March 31 and will be carried over to the new fiscal year starting in April.
This delay was partly caused by difficulty in purchasing plots of land needed for such projects as building houses for disaster victims. Another problem was that bidding for related public works has failed to attract businesses because they see little profitability in such projects.
In coastal areas of Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, removal of debris has progressed. But in many areas, work to elevate plots of land sunken by The tsunami or to construct seawalls has not even started. Wasting more time will only further delay reconstruction of the disaster-stricken areas.
The Reconstruction Agency, which is tasked with functioning as a control tower for reconstruction projects, has a heavy responsibility. It must reinforce its cooperation with local governments and take the leadership in implementing measures for the affected areas.
The agency has recently expanded the scope of how the reconstruction grants should be spent, making it possible to use them for such works as elevating the site where a fishery community once stood. Such a step is reasonable. The agency must clear away the bottleneck in work and speed up the pace of spending reconstruction budgets.
As there are many sparsely populated communities in the affected areas, it is not easy to revitalise these communities anytime soon.
On Okushiri Island in Hokkaido, which was hit in July 1993 by a major earthquake and tsunami, a large sum of reconstruction funds was spent on relocating communities to higher ground. But the population of the communities has been steadily declining. The disaster-hit areas in the Tohoku region may need to learn lessons from this experience.
Some local municipal governments, including Aomori and Toyama, have been carrying out projects designed to concentrate residential houses in certain districts, which are provided with such infrastructure as hospitals, schools and post offices, thus improving convenience. These projects are being implemented under a "compact city" concept.
Applying such a concept to measures dealing with the depopulation of the disaster-affected areas could be worth discussing.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said, "Reconstruction is the top priority, together with the revitalisation of the Japanese economy. I want to win the people's trust in my administration by bringing about tangible results as soon as possible."
As Abe has put it, without reconstruction, a "robust economy" cannot be realised.
This month, the government made major changes in the membership of a panel of experts tasked with scrutinising the reconstruction measures and recommending remedial steps to Abe. The panel is expected to compile an interim report by June.
In the central government's present reconstruction programmes, which were worked out under the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration, many things may require review when the reality of disaster-stricken areas is taken into consideration.
Why have the reconstruction projects been delayed? What kinds of new measures are needed? We hope the panel comes up with proposals that will lead to the rejuvenation of the affected area in Tohoku.
Now that two years have passed since the disaster, concrete actions with tangible results in the coming year are essential.
Just as Abe has expressed his determination to realise reconstruction, it is the government’s mission to accelerate the pace of reconstruction.