Locals continue to fight dam choking Isahaya Bay

Tidal flat reclamation helps a few farmers at expense of fishermen and environment, critics say


ISAHAYA, Nagasaki Pref. — Three years ago today, a 3,550-hectare section of Japan’s largest wetland was closed off from the Ariake Sea in Nagasaki Prefecture.

In the face of strong local and international protests, nearly 300 steel gates were erected to separate one of the nation’s largest and probably its most fertile wetland area from Isahaya Bay on April 14, 1997.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry said the gates were needed to reclaim more farmland and prevent flooding. To local fishermen, it was the death knell for their occupations. To conservationists, it was an environmental tragedy that cut off more than 6 percent of the nation’s remaining wetlands and over 11 percent of those in the Ariake Sea.

Today the 7-km sea wall — nearly twice as long as Mount Fuji is tall — is a symbol and rallying point for environmentalists. They have dubbed its floodgates the “guillotine” and see it as epitomizing the worst sort of public works projects: an environmentally destructive and economically frivolous anachronism.

“There is nothing public about this work,” said Hirofumi Yamashita, the sometimes gruff, sometimes witty and terminally optimistic Isahaya resident at the helm of the movement to revive the tidal flats.

Opponents of the project — most notably Yamashita and his comrades — are convinced that closing the gates did not necessarily seal the fate of the tidal flats.

They continue to campaign for the gates to be opened and contend that the estimated 2,400 hectares of land cut off from the sea, but still under water, could be revived within a few years.

Today Yamashita’s hopes of prying open the gates — one at the north and one at the south end of the sea wall — hinge on an increasingly vocal, disaffected contingent of fishing cooperatives and a ministry re-evaluation of the project scheduled for next year.

Recently, fishermen from neighboring Saga Prefecture who fish near the mouth of the bay have started to protest. On March 17, when a floodgate was opened to let a boat out, a number of fishermen rushed past the barrier to draw attention to their drive to open the dike. Today, in a symposium in Isahaya commemorating the three-year anniversary, Saga fishing cooperatives are officially going to back the campaign to open the gates, Yamashita said.

They claim that polluted water from within the dike — the result of accumulated waste water flushed down the Honmyo River and agricultural runoff — is hurting their catch.

Unlike cooperatives inside the bay, the Agriculture Ministry did not predict that areas beyond the wall would suffer.

“It is a fact that fishermen’s catches have dropped, but according to our measurements, water quality outside the dike has not changed. So there is no way you can say that the decline in catches is a result of the project,” said Koji Okubu, of the ministry’s Land Development Division.

A re-evaluation of the project is to begin next April. It would, however, have been conducted with or without the fishermen’s complaints.

Running behind schedule and drastically over budget, the project will be reviewed in fiscal 2001.

In line with a program adopted two years ago to trim wasteful public works projects, the ministry now puts large projects under the magnifying glass for review every five years.

However, it is the ministry that appoints the third-party committee that judges the validity of each project.

A five-member committee is set to debate the project for three months next year and make a decision around August. Yamashita and others are currently lobbying to get citizen-sponsored members on the committee.

But officials say they are not considering accepting panel members put forward by civic groups or altering the project.

Originally scheduled to be finished this year at a cost of 135 billion yen, the completion date has been pushed back six years and the budget increased to 249 billion yen in December.

First proposed in 1952, the project was expanded, shrunk, extinguished and revived before construction finally started in 1986.

Today, the gates enclose an area more than a third of the size of the land encircled by Tokyo’s JR Yamanote loop. The roughly 800 hectares that lie above the water have sprouted a ragged coat of vegetation, while most of the remaining area remains under stagnant water the color of tea.

Behind the dike, cranes on barges dredge sediment from around the perimeter of the exposed land as trucks kicking up plumes of dust scurry across the vast site like toys.

Aside from the environmental damage to what is recognized as an internationally important wetland, opponents contend that the project is dangerous from an economic perspective as well.

Akio Ogawa, a longtime commentator on public works projects, called Isahaya “one of the worst” cities in terms of fiscal stability and a prime example of how such projects can threaten to bankrupt local governments.

Some economists claim that the project is financially flawed and that arguments against the fiscal viability of the project are much stronger than those in favor of it.

Originally projected to raise 3 yen for every 100 yen spent, a capital investment return of 1.03, this was downgraded last year to 1.01.

Skeptical economists who include the natural functions of the wetland — such as water purification, fish spawning and recreation — in their calculations estimate the inflated budget will bring the capital return down to around 0.58, translating to a return of 58 yen for every 100 yen spent.

Construction budgets and municipal red ink aside, locals say the project has had other, more subtle effects.

The Fukayama family runs a cozy drive-in seafood stand along National Highway 207, which parallels the north shore of the former tidal flats. The couple says the dike has altered the local seafood industry and their business.

Prices for what used to be local fish and shellfish have skyrocketed.

“Shellfish that used to be free for the taking at low tide are now 1,000 yen per kilogram,” Kazue Fukayama said as she shucked oysters.

“Of course it would have been better for us if they had left them (the tidal flats) the way they naturally were, and not closed the gates,” she said. “But all things considered (compensation money included), we have made a good transition. Better than most.”

Masayuki Takayama, 55, a taxi driver who lives about 1 km from Isahaya Bay’s tidal flats, said he whiled away many days as a child in and around the wetlands. He said he doesn’t think the project will help the city as a whole.

“I imagine that farmers are happy. But for those of us who aren’t farmers . . . there is not much positive about it,” he said.

Holed up in a prefab shed behind his home in the hills that form a horseshoe around Isahaya Bay, Yamashita runs the Isahaya Tidal Flat Emergency Rescue Headquarters.

Since moving to Isahaya and taking up his battle against the project, Yamashita’s spirited and tireless opposition has made him a celebrity. Now Yamashita believes a showdown is approaching over the most ecologically diverse wetlands in Kyushu — 1 sq. meter of sediment from Isahaya contains more organisms than samples from any of the three other sites nearby, he said.

Ever optimistic, Yamashita believes the governor’s announcement of a plan to focus on preparing 700 hectares for agricultural use by 2003 is setting the stage for the scheme to be cut short.

But while the conflict rages, the project continues.

The trucks haul and the cranes dredge. They move earth slowly, like so many meticulous ants, while Yamashita sits above the scene in his home looking for a way to use the fishermen’s complaints and the 2001 project re-evaluation to pry the floodgates open.

Dutch official to talk

NAGASAKI (Kyodo) Opponents to the 1997 closing of Isahaya Bay, in Nagasaki Prefecture, as part of a public works land reclamation project will hold a symposium in Isahaya this weekend to mark the third anniversary of the closing of the artificial barrier.

A group attempting to save the Isahaya tideland will host the symposium Saturday and Sunday, and has invited a land reclamation expert from the Netherlands to speak, according to the group’s leader, Hirofumi Yamashita.

Jon van Hees, an official with the Dutch Transport, Public Works and Water Management Ministry, is scheduled to speak at the symposium, titled “Learning from reclaimed land in the Netherlands — What to do about the Isahaya Bay reclamation?”

Yamashita said van Hees took part in a reclamation project in the Netherlands that was used as a model for Isahaya Bay.

Van Hees is expected to talk about how the Dutch project was re-examined in the 1960s due to the high cost of maintenance and because the reclaimed land was not seen as preventing possible water hazards. The floodgates there are currently open.

Activists from South Korea calling for the preservation of tidelands will also attend the symposium.

“We want people to understand how wasteful large-scale reclamation projects are,” Yamashita said.

Environmentalists have been urging the government to open the floodgates at Isahaya Bay to help protect wildlife in the tideland.

The area was closed off for draining in April 1997 for a reclamation project intended to develop farmland and prevent flooding.