10 Years after Disaster, Progress Needed toward Self-reliance / Use Lessons Learned to Mitigate Future Harm

This year marks a decade since a massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident combined to create an unprecedented, complex disaster.

The reconstruction period set by the government for the Great East Japan Earthquake ends in March, and a new five-year second reconstruction and revitalization period will begin. While many disaster-hit areas are making full-fledged efforts to become self-reliant, the reconstruction of Fukushima Prefecture, which was battered by the nuclear accident, is far from completed.

The disaster left more than 22,000 people dead or missing. It is hoped that condolences for the victims will be expressed anew, and that determination to support the disaster-hit areas will be renewed.

■ Community-led development

By the end of last year, about 30,000 public housing units planned mainly in the three disaster-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima had been completed. Construction of housing lots for nearly 20,000 more units has also been completed, and temporary housing in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures is expected to end.

Railways and roads have been serviced, and the construction of infrastructure, which has cost ¥31 trillion, is almost completed. How to utilize this infrastructure will be a challenge from now on.

In most of the affected municipalities, the population has decreased significantly from before the disaster, and the outflow is still continuing. More than 40% of the developed land in Iwate and Fukushima prefectures is unused, and more than 20% in Miyagi.

In the town of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, commercial facilities have been developed, but the population has decreased to 60% of the pre-earthquake level, with elderly people accounting for 40% of the population. Elderly people living on newly developed highlands are having difficulty going to low-lying commercial areas for shopping.

Are there any discrepancies between the initial assumptions and reality? Local governments and residents should take the initiative in discussions to identify issues that need to be resolved. It is important to build sustainable communities in the future.

The central government must put effort into providing support for the self-reliance of disaster-hit areas, such as caring for survivors who have been isolated in the areas to which they relocated, as well as helping build communities.

■ Secure employment

The number of evacuees has decreased from 470,000 people at the peak to 42,000. Of this number, 37,000 are from Fukushima Prefecture. In seven municipalities in the prefecture, there are areas where radiation levels remain high and evacuation orders have not been lifted.

While it will take time to lift the orders, more and more evacuees are expected to give up returning to their homes after establishing a base for their daily lives in the areas to which they relocated. It is necessary to draw up a vision for the future, taking into account the fact that the population is declining and graying.

The maintenance and development of local areas depends on securing job opportunities. Verification facilities for robots and hydrogen production plants were built along the coast of Fukushima Prefecture. The central government must take the initiative in strengthening cooperation with local companies so that development will not just end with the establishment of facilities, but help revitalize local communities.

Harm caused by rumors is persistent. The prices of peaches and beef, specialties of Fukushima Prefecture, are about 20% lower than the national average. Five countries and regions, including South Korea and China, have continued to suspend imports of agricultural and fishery products produced mainly in the three disaster-hit prefectures.

The government plans to release processed water, which contains radioactive substances, from the nuclear power plant into the sea. The government should carefully explain about the safety of food products both at home and abroad to prevent the further spread of damaging rumors.

The disaster must not be allowed to fade away. Last autumn, a museum that compiled information on the nuclear accident was built in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture. Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where many children were killed, has been renovated as a relic and will be opened to the public in April.

It is important to pass on the memories and the lessons learned to future generations.

The past 10 years have seen a series of large-scale natural disasters. The Kumamoto earthquake occurred in 2016 and the Hokkaido earthquake in 2018. As a result of climate change, typhoons and heavy rains have caused more severe disasters.

■ Help local governments

Over the next 30 years, it is predicted that a Nankai Trough earthquake will occur with a probability of 70% to 80%, and an epicentral earthquake in the Tokyo metropolitan area with a probability of 70%. The government has compiled a new five-year national resilience plan, and will inject ¥12 trillion on anti-disaster measures from fiscal 2021.

There are about 80,000 bridges and tunnels built 50 or more years ago that need repairing. Steady progress must be made on fixing them.

It will be increasingly important to mitigate disasters by combining tangible measures with measures related to human elements. However, there have been differences in the responses by local governments.

About 8,000 small and midsize rivers could be flooded by heavy rain. Areas along those rivers need to be marked on hazard maps as prone to flooding to notify residents of the risk. But areas along more than half of those rivers have yet to be designated on hazard maps.

Only half of municipalities have drawn up plans to dispose of waste generated by natural disasters. A huge amount of garbage will likely remain, hindering reconstruction efforts.

The central and prefectural governments should send experts to help small and midsize local governments formulate their plans. It is also necessary for two or more local governments over a wide area to work together from the planning stage.

In the Great East Japan Earthquake, more than 60% of the dead or missing were elderly people, and the death rate among disabled people was high. When formulating disaster prevention plans, it is important to work from the viewpoint of protecting people vulnerable to disasters.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Jan. 10, 2021.