Removing and disposing of the debris generated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami are crucial parts of the recovery process as the people in the devastated region move forward with rebuilding their communities.
More than three months after the magnitude 9.0 quake, splintered wood, concrete blocks, steel reinforcing bars and all kinds of other waste are gradually being cleared from commercial and residential areas. The wreckage is brought to temporary collection points that are rapidly growing into mountains of rubble.
Even so, piles of flotsam still remain visible in many communities, and removing it all will take many more months — and the disposal will take years. Local governments are facing many challenges as they fight to manage the unprecedented amount of debris.
According to the Environment Ministry, roughly 24 million tons of disaster waste was generated from the three hardest-hit prefectures: For Miyagi the total runs to 16 million tons, while Iwate faces 4.5 million tons and Fukushima 2.8 million tons. Together it easily exceeds the 14.5 million tons Hyogo Prefecture had to deal with following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
In addition to the scale of the disaster, experts say the complex ways the debris was created adds to the headache.
“In addition to structures that came down from the quake, there are those that were washed away or inundated by tsunami and those that remain under water, plus those in Fukushima Prefecture” with the additional problem of radiation, said Nagahisa Hirayama, an associate professor of human security engineering at Kyoto University.
The fact that the country didn’t have a disaster waste management guideline for tsunami before March 11 has made matters worse, Hirayama said.
The government compiled separate guidelines to deal with disaster rubble — one for quakes in 1998 and the other for typhoon-generated floods in 2005 — but neither addresses the multiple problems created by tsunami, he said.
By law, municipal governments bear the responsibility of managing waste generated by a disaster, but faced with an amount of debris beyond their capacity, many are now receiving support from their prefectural governments. Some are also getting help from local governments in other parts of the country.
The central government meanwhile has been giving advice and support to municipalities, while monitoring their progress. It has said it will cover the cost of collecting, sorting and treating the disaster waste.
Managing disaster waste is a complicated task on many levels. The destruction hit property both public and private, and all sorts of items from cars to electronic appliances have different regulations and procedures for disposal and recycling.
Before municipalities brought in heavy equipment to demolish wrecked houses, homeowners were encouraged to collect whatever items they could manage, and also decide whether to have the remaining structure demolished or left alone.
And then there are the valuables and personal mementoes like photo albums and Buddhist tablets with names of deceased relatives and ancestors that were carefully brought to police and the municipalities for the owners to claim.
All this time, and even now as the debris removal continues, the main priority is locating the bodies of the missing.
“Making sure that the search for the missing is completed is important before starting the demolition, but it inevitably slows the removal process. That goes for keeping the mementoes and valuables aside as well,” said Shigeyoshi Iwama, chief of the environment management section in the city of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.
Meanwhile, volunteers are playing a part to help the disaster victims clear away the wreckage.
“The amount of debris in this disaster seems larger than I’ve ever seen before,” said Marc Young, director of global operations of All Hands Volunteers, an American nongovernmental organization that specializes in disaster relief activities.
Since late March, All Hands has been based in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, where its members are working closely with the city. Volunteers from numerous countries have been working through the group to clear debris in Ofunato as well as in Rikuzentakata.
Young, who has dealt with the aftermath of natural disasters in Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and the United States, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said that while the local governments here are implementing their plans to remove debris, the sheer volume is beyond their capacity.
“The government has plans to clear the streets, the central business districts, clear the communities, but we can start to get to things that need to be done but won’t be done (until) much later,” he said.
As local governments made their efforts on the ground, the Environment Ministry in mid-May finally compiled a disaster waste management guideline for the Great East Japan Earthquake that urges municipal governments to recycle as much of the debris as possible. In June, the ministry compiled a separate guideline for irradiated debris in Fukushima Prefecture.
According to the May guideline, workers on site are to divide the wreckage into noncombustables, recyclables and hazardous waste before being brought to the temporary storage sites for further separation.
The guideline also notes other issues, including the necessity of washing away salt from the debris as it is an obstacle for recycling, as well as careful handling of hazardous waste.
The ministry said that debris in residential and commercial areas should be removed and brought to the temporary storage sites by the end of August.
On debris in other areas, the ministry is targeting removal by the end of next March.
At this point, the speed of removal varies depending on the municipality. According to ministry data, as of June 21, Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, had removed 80 percent of its debris, while only 5 percent had been transported out of Shiogama a little to the north. Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, removed 27 percent of its estimated total, while Kamaishi had only been able to accomplish 13 percent.
Experts say the difference in progress is inevitable considering that some municipalities had more debris and casualties than others, and many, including Kamaishi, are also having difficulties securing enough empty space to collect the debris.
“There are just all kinds of issues that we’ve never experienced before,” Iwama of Kamaishi said. “We’re doing what we can to move things forward.”
Having entered the disaster areas both for relief and research purposes several times, Hirayama said local governments have been able to utilize their past earthquake experience for the quake-generated waste management but are having to learn step by step how to handle tsunami debris and create effective support systems that work with other municipalities.
Speed shouldn’t necessarily be the priority for Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, Hirayama said.
“What’s important is not to leave any environmental burden for the next generation, so making sure the waste is properly managed is necessary,” he said.
In the case of the Hanshin quake, 50.1 percent of the debris was recycled. But the Environment Ministry has yet to decide on how much recycling from this disaster it wants to accomplish.
Hirayama said the government should set a clear target and provide the leadership to meet that goal.
“With a clear target, it is also easier for people to understand why and how the recycling process is handled,” he said, adding the process should also be linked with the communities’ rebuilding plans.