Facilities Must Be Strengthened to Protect Distribution of Goods

If ports and harbors are damaged by a major earthquake or typhoon, the distribution of goods via maritime transportation will be disrupted, severely affecting economic activities and people’s daily lives. There must be greater preparedness, so as to protect this vital infrastructure from large-scale disasters.

Japan is surrounded by the sea and relies on marine transportation for almost all of its energy and food imports. Marine transportation accounts for about 40% of the domestic distribution of goods. Ports and harbors are important hubs, but the disaster preparedness measures there cannot be called sufficient.

The government established technical standards for port and harbor facilities, requiring owners to ensure that their wharves can withstand the kind of large earthquakes that occur once every 75 years or so. Whether those standards are being met is checked when the port is constructed.

However, wharves built before 1974 were not subject to those standards. Of the wharves at ports and harbors around the nation, about 20% of public facilities and 50% of private facilities have been in service for more than 50 years, raising concerns about their safety.

The current situation cannot be allowed to continue unchecked, given concerns about the possibility of major earthquakes, such as one with its focus directly under the Tokyo metropolitan area, and a Nankai Trough earthquake. There is also the intensification of damage from typhoons, heavy rainfall and storm surges that occur along with climate change.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry plans to revise the ministerial ordinance to require owners to make efforts to ensure the earthquake resistance of wharves. The ministry will also encourage the use of earthquake-resistant cargo-handling equipment, and the heightening of breakwaters.

Some private owners are lagging behind in their awareness of disaster preparedness, for example, because they do not have seismic inspections of their ports and harbors. The revision of the ministerial ordinance should be used as an opportunity to increase momentum for the renovation of aging facilities.

The ministry established an interest-free loan program in fiscal 2014 to cover the cost of seismic renovation work for wharves, but only one loan was actually provided through the program. The program itself may not be well known to the public.

There also is another program to reduce or exempt fixed asset taxes on renovated facilities. Owners are urged to take advantage of those programs and make efforts to improve the earthquake resistance of their facilities.

In the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, containers, timber, earth and sand, and automobiles were swept into ports in large quantities by the tsunami, and some shipping routes were blocked. At Kashima Port in Ibaraki Prefecture, it reportedly took about two weeks for vessels to resume sailing and about one year to fully restore the navigation routes.

How should vessels and cargoes be evacuated in advance based on weather information? What procedures should be followed to quickly assess the damage and restore operations? It is essential to devise manuals for such matters. Neighboring ports should cooperate in information sharing and joint responses.

It is necessary to enhance plans for wide-area cooperation, such as by having ports in and west of the Kansai region take on the functionality of impaired ports in a case where a disaster strikes and such facilities in the Kanto region are damaged.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 23, 2023)