Urgent Need to Strengthen Disaster Prevention Measures in Major Cities

The lessons learned from the largest postwar earthquake with a focus directly under an urban area in Japan are significant. There is an urgent need for regions across the nation to hasten their efforts to minimize the damage that could be caused by earthquakes.

It has been 28 years since the Great Hanshin Earthquake that killed 6,434 people. Today, it is difficult to find scars of the major earthquake in the cityscapes of the affected areas.

Of the six redevelopment projects in Hyogo Prefecture, the last remaining project in Nagata Ward, Kobe, is expected to be completed next fiscal year. At each redevelopment site, there are parks that can serve as emergency relief centers, earthquake-resistant high-rise condominiums and other facilities and buildings.

Port Island, a man-made island in Kobe, has become one of the leading medical industry centers in Japan, with some 360 companies and organizations, including research institutes for regenerative medicine and an operational facility for the supercomputer Fugaku.

It can be said that the prefecture has entered a phase in which it is changing course from reconstruction to growth. Expectations are high for the creation of new industries.

Last year saw a series of major earthquakes in various parts of the country. There are also concerns about the possibility of an earthquake directly under the Tokyo metropolitan area and another originating in the Nankai Trough that stretches along an area off the Pacific Coast from the Tokai to Kyushu regions.

If a major city with a high population density and a concentration of political and economic functions were to be hit, the impact would be enormous. However, preparations for such an earthquake cannot be said to be sufficient.

There are as many as about 2,000 hectares of “dangerously dense urban areas” nationwide, in which old wooden houses are built close together, mainly in urban areas.

There is a high risk of an earthquake leading to the collapse of buildings and large-scale fires. There are many narrow alleys where fire engines and other vehicles cannot pass, which could hinder firefighting and lifesaving activities.

The central government is aiming to resolve the problem by fiscal 2030, but it will not be easy to achieve this goal due to the huge cost of rebuilding and redevelopment. First of all, it is important to enhance local disaster preparedness by making efforts to improve fire prevention equipment and firefighting organizations, and conducting practical evacuation drills, among other measures.

In March last year, a powerful earthquake off Fukushima Prefecture measuring up to upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7 cut off the water supply to about 70,000 households from the Tohoku region to the Kanto region. It is reported that most of the damaged water pipes were not earthquake resistant.

Water pipes are aging throughout the country, and only about 40% of them are earthquake resistant. The finances of local governments operating water services are tight. They should make efforts to streamline the management through such measures as privatization and business integration.

Information technology will be a major weapon in disaster prevention and mitigation measures in the future. For example, new disaster prevention technologies are being developed, such as lifeline inspections using artificial intelligence, and the collection and dissemination of disaster damage information via social media. It is hoped that these technologies will be actively utilized.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake. It is vital to raise awareness of disaster prevention by considering measures that can be taken in homes, schools and workplaces, such as securing furniture, storing food and confirming evacuation routes.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 17, 2023)