Speed up measures to prevent mudslide disasters

As typhoons and heavy rains become more severe every year, there are dangerous soil mounds that can cause mudslides scattered throughout the country. The central and local governments must take immediate steps to prevent such disasters.

A third-party panel has released its final report on how the prefectural and municipal governments dealt with the mudslide disaster that occurred in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, in July last year. It said there were many opportunities to stop the creation of the improper soil mound involved in the incident and concluded that the response of the administrative authorities had been a “failure.”

According to the report, the soil mound was about 50 meters high at the point where the landslide started, more than three times the legal standard. In 2011, after consulting with the prefectural government, the city government had decided at one point to order the then landowner to take safety measures, but ultimately decided not to do so.

For that reason, the final report also mentioned the lack of cooperation between the prefecture and the city. The Atami disaster killed 27 people and left one missing. If the prefecture and the city had been aware of the danger that the soil mound could collapse and taken appropriate measures to deal with the situation, these grave losses could have been prevented.

At the special investigation committee of the Atami city assembly, the person who owned the land when the soil mound is believed to have been created and the current landowner were called as witnesses. However, both of them reportedly denied responsibility and made remarks attempting to blame the other.

The Shizuoka prefectural police are investigating the landowners on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in death, among other charges. It is hoped that a thorough investigation will be conducted to establish who is responsible for the tragedy.

In response to the mudslide in Atami, a bill to revise the law regulating residential land development, so as to strengthen safety measures for soil mounds, is expected to be passed at the current Diet session.

Under the revised law, prefectural governors and others will be able to designate as restricted areas places where landslides could damage houses and other facilities. Landowners and others will not be able to create soil mounds within designated restricted areas without permission. Violators will face heavier penalties, including fines of up to ¥300 million for corporate bodies.

There were previously no comprehensive rules for soil mounds, as the past laws and regulations that have been applied varied depending on the location and size of the mounds. In some cases, construction waste soil was dumped in areas where regulations were lax. The revision of the law is expected to help curb uncontrolled soil mounds

The central government said it will draw up guidelines on how to implement the regulations for local governments that are responsible for issues related to soil mounds. Each local government should strictly check the risk of possible landslides when designating areas in which soil mounds are restricted.

There are about 1,100 problematic soil mounds nationwide, including ones created without authorization. In some cases, soil mounds were formed by the illegal dumping of earth and sand unbeknownst to municipalities. Local governments should also make efforts to strengthen their monitoring of such illegal acts.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 18, 2022)