Water Cutoffs during Disasters: Why Haven’t More Water Pipes Been Reinforced for Earthquakes?

Every time a major earthquake occurs, aging water pipes are damaged and the water supply is repeatedly cut off. The reinforcement of water pipes for earthquakes, which is behind schedule in various parts of the country, must be hastened.

In the Okunoto region of Ishikawa Prefecture, which was severely damaged by the Noto Peninsula Earthquake, running water is still cut off. Residents are forced to suffer inconvenience in terms of food and sanitation, and the operation of hospitals and other facilities has also been hampered.

The seismic reinforcement rate of water pipes in Ishikawa Prefecture is 36%, lower than the national average of 41%. In addition to water pipes in central parts of towns, pipes leading to communities scattered among the mountains were extensively damaged, which is one reason restoration work is taking time.

Due to severed roads, workers have had great difficulty reaching sites to restore the water supply. The suspension of running water after the Noto quake highlighted that once infrastructure for the water supply is destroyed, it cannot easily be rebuilt.

Japan’s water infrastructure was intensively developed during the period of rapid economic growth, and many of the water pipes are now past their 40-year service life. The central government recommends that water pipes be replaced with pipes that are less likely to break and whose joints do not easily come off in an earthquake, but too little progress has been made.

Waterworks are mainly handled by municipalities. While the revenue from water fees has dropped due to population decline and improvements in water-saving technology, it is difficult to raise fees significantly considering the burden on residents, and many municipalities are struggling. They also cannot raise funds to update water pipes.

Aging roads, bridges and other infrastructure are also a serious problem, but securing water is a matter of life or death. Another earthquake could occur anywhere and at any time.

The key to maintaining a stable supply of water will be how well local governments can improve the efficiency of their water supply services and strengthen their fiscal base.

In 2018, the Kagawa prefectural government integrated water supply services for nearly the entire prefecture. By centralizing operations, the prefecture cuts costs and secured funds to update equipment, among other things. The size of the organization makes it possible to immediately dispatch personnel in the event of a disaster.

The Miyagi prefectural government, for its part, has been outsourcing its water supply services to the private sector. It is hoped that each region will consider methods that are appropriate to their actual situations.

To make effective use of limited budgets, it is also essential to determine which areas’ water pipes should be made earthquake-resistant first.

The Sakai city government in Osaka Prefecture is prioritizing quake resistance for pipes that supply water to schools, which serve as evacuation centers in a disaster, and hospitals that receive disaster victims. The Aizuwakamatsu city government in Fukushima Prefecture is using artificial intelligence to examine the deterioration of its water pipes and deciding the order in which to update them based on the results.

In April, the supervision for waterworks will be transferred from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, which is in charge of road management. When road construction is carried out, water pipes should be reinforced for earthquakes at the same time, allowing for integrated maintenance.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 14, 2024)