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Housing reconstruction remains an urgent task 3 years after disaster

Publication Date : 12-03-2014

 

Yesterday marks the third anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

In addition to 18,500 people who died or went missing in the earthquake and ensuing tsunami, disaster-related deaths have continued to rise. As many as 270,000 people are still living as evacuees, while 100,000 are living in prefabricated temporary housing.

It must be stressed anew that all-Japan efforts are needed to assist the disaster victims.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a news conference Monday that reconstruction is still just “halfway” done. “I am determined to make the people feel reconstruction this year,” Abe said. He announced plans to move people to higher ground in 200 locations and build more than 10,000 housing units by next March.

It is essential to carry out policies steadily to accelerate reconstruction.

Difficulty in land acquisition

To secure stable housing, local governments in the disaster-affected areas are taking such measures as promoting mass moves to higher ground and construction of recovery housing units.

The government has come up with a policy to spur housing reconstruction by establishing a system under which measures are discussed by bureau-chief level officials of the government ministries and agencies concerned under the leadership of Takumi Nemoto, state minister for reconstruction. This is praiseworthy, to a degree, as a reinforcement of the Reconstruction Agency’s role as a control tower.

The fact remains, however, that housing lots and reconstruction housing units made available to the disaster survivors in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures as of early February amounted to the equivalent of 985 units, a mere 2.1 per cent of the total planned number. Thus, the delay in housing reconstruction is serious.

One reason for that is the difficulty in acquiring land. It takes time to ascertain the rights related to plots of land because their owners are often unknown, posing a significant obstacle for land transactions.

The Iwate prefectural government has asked the central government to allow starting construction without an owner’s permission in the case of land whose owners are not accounted for. The prefecture did so probably because it felt that only a limited effect can be obtained by implementing the government policies, such as shortening the screening period for land expropriation.

Spikes in construction material prices and manpower shortages have further delayed housing projects.

Bidding on contracts to build reconstruction housing has failed time and again.

The longer housing reconstruction is delayed, the more residents leave, thereby further accelerating the decline of disaster-stricken areas. The government must cope with the situation swiftly and flexibly by listening to the needs of local governments and residents.

Consensus needed fast

Some communities were indeed protected from the quake-triggered tsunami by seawalls, so the central and local governments have been going ahead with seawall construction plans to prevent future tsunami deaths.

But residents in some areas are asking for a review of construction plans for seawalls in their communities. Some of the primary objections include the fear that a high seawall could lead to complacency, making people become too dependent on seawalls for safety and lowering their guard against tsunami, and the impact that a high seawall can make on natural scenery.

Abe said: “Residents’ feelings have become gradually settled [compared with immediately following the disaster]. With regards to the review [of the construction plans], the central government needs to consider the plans, while consulting with local governments.”

In some districts, a compromise between residents and local governments has been reached over seawall plans by relocating the building site of a seawall to a higher, inland ground, allowing a decrease in the height of the seawall corresponding to the elevation.

Because the height of seawall construction is closely tied to the specifics of community reconstruction plans, including the location and extent of work to raise elevations in disaster-hit areas, local governments and residents should expedite their efforts to negotiate.

Compared with Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, post-disaster reconstruction in Fukushima Prefecture has been much delayed. In areas near Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No.1 nuclear power station, there are districts where even the removal of debris has made almost no progress.

The government’s new guidelines on the reconstruction of Fukushima Prefecture, made public in December, shift from the previous policy of “eventually having all those who were forced to live as evacuees return home” to include for the first time support measures for evacuees who have decided to live elsewhere than their hometown.

In municipalities with districts that have unclear prospects for decontamination, and that have been deemed difficult for former residents to return to, a growing number of residents have chosen not to return to their original homes. The new guidelines do right by incorporating such ideas and facing up to reality.

Compensation from Tepco has opened a separate and worrisome rift between residents who have received payment and those who have not. Residents are also divided over the amount of compensation they are receiving.

In some cases, compensation amounts have differed among residents, even though their houses are located near the crippled power plant, with only small differences in distance. It is quite natural for residents to feel unconvinced. If sizable differences in the assistance distributed to residents exist, emotional conflicts could arise among them.

Long delays in Fukushima

Central and local governments must cooperate and hammer out measures that can relieve the sense of unfairness among them as much as possible.

In Fukushima Prefecture, incumbent mayors were defeated one after another in mayoral elections held last year in Koriyama, Iwaki and Fukushima cities. Their defeats are said to have stemmed from the voters’ demand for change, as residents seemed to be gripped by a feeling of helplessness over the poor progress made in reconstruction.

Residents were instructed to evacuate 11 cities, towns and villages. On April 1, evacuation instructions will be lifted for the first time for one district in the city of Tamura where the radiation level has declined thanks to the decontamination efforts. The lifting of evacuation instructions is a new step forward in post-disaster reconstruction.

If the people of Tamura are able to bring their daily lives back on track, it will give hope to others in the prefecture. The reconstruction of Fukushima Prefecture is essential to move forward beyond the ravages of the quake and tsunami.

 

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