Plebiscite may yet bear fruit as Yoshino dam plan is rethought

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TOKUSHIMA– In their fight to stop the Yoshino River being dammed, Tokushima residents rallied over 50 percent of the local electorate for a landmark plebiscite and more than 90 percent of those who turned out said “No” to the controversial project.

Now, both those opposed to the project and the Construction Ministry, which initiated it, are seeking an alternative to the original plan.

But distrust between the two sides is deep-rooted, and it may be some time before they are able to reach a mutually satisfactory decision on the river’s future, as well as on ways to get local residents involved in Shikoku’s public works projects.

A stringent requirement — that a minimum of 50 percent of eligible voters cast ballots for the result to taken into consideration — was attached to the vote. This triggered dam proponents launch a campaign to convince voters to stay home.

On Jan. 23, about 55 percent of the electorate cast ballots, and 92 percent of those who turned out rejected the 100 billion yen national project.

Although the outcome of the plebiscite was not binding, Tokushima Mayor Masakatsu Koike, in an about-face, said after the plebiscite that the city will make its stance clear to the central government and oppose the dam project to reflect the people’s will.

Construction Minister Masaaki Nakayama has changed his mind on more than one occasion on how to deal with the plebiscite’s result, as well as the entire future of the project.

But the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s policy affairs chief, Shizuka Kamei, said that going ahead with the project and ignoring the opinions of local people would be against the spirit of the 1997 revised River Law, which calls for taking the will of residents into consideration.

As construction minister, Kamei worked on revising the law.

After the initial shock subsided, the Construction Ministry’s Tokushima office invited 35 local residents in February to a meeting to discuss how to involve citizens in river projects.

Tokushima office chief Kazunori Odaira said the office wants to start from scratch to solve the dam issue through sincere discussions with local residents.

The initial project calls for the demolition of the 250-year-old Daijuzeki rock barrier on the Yoshino River and construction of a dam with floodgates that would also function as a bridge.

The rock barrier was initially erected to divert the river’s flow into another river. Parts of it have been breached by floods and repaired over the years.

The ministry said the current barrier is too old and poses a danger during major floods because it prevents water flow.

According to simulations, the water level would exceed the safety level of the embankments by 42 cm at a point 16 km from the mouth of the river, according to the ministry.

Dam opponents argue that the ministry’s simulation overestimates the levels and that the proposed dam would only lower the water level by a mere 50 cm, which is not sufficient to deal with major floods.

While the ministry claims that a major flood of the Yoshino River in 1888 claimed many lives because of the rock barrier, opponents say the serious damage was caused as a result of embankments that had been broken and left unrepaired.

Repairing the existing barrier and creating embankments, the opponents say, would be a better way to prepare for major flooding.

They also claim that construction of a new dam will only degrade the quality of water in the river and waste taxpayers’ money.

The ministry’s local office is now saying it does not necessarily have to stick to the original blueprint and is open to suggestions, including an idea by dam opponents to keep the rock barrier.

“Although we still believe the original project is the best one, we are flexible to alternatives if they are supported by local residents,” Odaira said. “We would like to find something that satisfies many local residents through their active participation.”

Two meetings have been organized by the ministry’s Tokushima office since the plebiscite. It now plans to put together an interim report by June to outline how to proceed with future discussions, select participants and compile various ideas.

Based on the outline, the office hopes to inaugurate a round-table conference where ministry officials and local citizens hold discussions, Odaira said.

“The final outcome may be more than a year or two in coming,” he said. “We don’t mind if the process takes time, as long as it creates plans that satisfy many of the people concerned.”

Although the Tokushima office called on a range of people to participate in the meeting, those who are against the project and campaigned for the plebiscite — the first of its kind over a national public works project — have rejected the idea.

They claim the office is only pretending to listen to the residents’ opinions by organizing the meeting.

“If the office really intends to start from ground zero, it should scrap the original project first,” said Masayoshi Himeno, a key member of the citizens’ group opposing the project.

“Considering (the ministry) maintains its position that the project is necessary and has already made a 400 million yen budget request for the project for the next fiscal year, it is hard to believe that the ministry has changed its stance.”

Himeno’s and other opponents’ distrust of the ministry has grown over the years because of its handling of the project.

The dam was originally planned in 1982. The ministry set up a panel of experts to examine the validity of the project in 1995, and the panel gave the green light in July 1998.

Civic activists, however, complained that panel members were unfairly selected so as to exclude those who questioned the project.

They also pointed out that the project has a number of flaws, including downplaying its impact on the river’s water quality.

Angered that the opinions of local residents had not been reflected in the decision-making process, a citizens group was set up in September 1998 to enact a city ordinance to hold a plebiscite on the project.

But a petition bearing 101,535 signatures, nearly half of the local electorate, was rejected by the assembly in January 1999.

The assembly finally enacted the ordinance last June after a municipal election changed the balance of power in the assembly.

Rejecting the invitation of the ministry’s local office to join the meeting, Himeno and others have decided to map out their own alternative plan that would make use of the Daijuzeki rock barrier.

“Because the ministry seems not to have been able to recover from the shock of the plebiscite and seems to be at a loss over what to do next, this is a good time for local residents to draw up a future development plan on behalf of the community,” Himeno said.

“Because the Daijuzeki rock barrier has existed for 250 years, it is a tribute to the wisdom of our ancestors. I would like to generate a new grassroots movement to find a solution that keeps that wisdom alive.”

In fact, some river engineering experts have recognized the viability of the techniques used in Daijuzeki, which was built with rocks and stakes.

Takashi Okuma, a professor of river engineering at Niigata University, said the Daijuzeki itself is precious enough to be designated a cultural treasure.

He said the barrier’s long existence is attributable to the fact that it is made of rocks and wood, which decays slowly.

It was also built diagonally, thus mitigating the impact of strong water flows, and the destruction of some parts during major floods has also helped ease the overall impact, he added.

Speaking at a symposium last month in Tokushima, Okuma said the Daijuzeki barrier has played an important role in keeping people in close contact with the river.

“Look at the estuary dam at the mouth of the Nagara River. That gigantic construction has put the river in the hands of experts and deprived people of their opportunities to be close to the river,” Okuma said.

He said that while civil engineers in the Meiji Era tried many times to control floods by building dams and floodgates, they also created many problems. Such efforts destroyed river ecosystems and wasted vast sums on concrete structures that lasted only a few decades.

Okuma claims the best way to control the flow of water is to place rocks that will give way in the event of a major flood.

“When a really big flood occurs once every 100 years or so, there is almost nothing you can do,” Okuma said.

As an example of dealing with major floods, more than 350 hectares of “suigai bobirin” bamboo groves have been planted along the Yoshino River to mitigate the impact of flood damage. This can credited to the wisdom of past generations, Okuma said.

In an effort to collect a range of opinions and suggestions from local residents living not only in Tokushima but also upstream, Himeno and other group members have called on the public to join a new group launched Saturday.

As a first step, the group plans to re-examine the rock barrier.

Last month, about 200 people took part in a walking tour of Daijuzeki, which was organized by Himeno and others as part a preview before forming the new group.

After compiling various opinions and suggestions, the newly formed group plans to solicit views from experts both in Japan and abroad for a concrete plan.

“The plan should not be made only by a handful of experts. We’d like to put importance on the process of creating the plan by putting together various opinions,” Himeno said.