As the Tohoku area recovers and renews itself after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, one of the most valuable and hopeful steps is the Great Forest Wall Project. The project of planting nearly 300 km of trees along the northeast coast from Iwate to Miyagi to Fukushima will take time, but will establish a strong barrier, in 20 years time, to protect people and their way of life.
Thousands of saplings have already been planted over the past two years, but the tree seawall will require many more if it is going to regenerate the Tohoku forests strongly enough to withstand another tsunami. It is estimated that 90 million trees will be needed in total to provide adequate coverage over the 300 km distance. It is expected that the tree seawall will cut the power of tsunamis by 50 percent and reduce undertow dangers.
The area will need more than just trees, too. Environmentalists are calling for a more thorough evaluation of what will best protect residents and maintain the ecosystems that provide a livelihood to the region.
In addition to trees, the coast needs tidal flats, sea-grass meadows and natural “open” spaces. The central government and construction interests, however, have aimed at building concrete seawalls.
Such barriers may be appropriate in many areas, but the Great Forest Wall Project is a reminder that the best protection may be nature itself. Building high, continuous walls of concrete along the shore may seem a natural response to a disaster, but taking into account ecological necessities is a more sensible plan.
Concrete walls and barriers that block the natural intertidal zones will cause havoc with the complex ecosystems in the area. Discussion should take place over what kind of construction each community wants and needs. Building a wall of concrete that destroys the livelihood of fishing communities is hardly a reasonable solution. Trees and tidal flats are a better protection in many areas than concrete barriers.
Building of protective concrete walls should take into account the safety of the citizens in the area, but also the needs of the coastal environment. The danger is that eco-zones, bays, spring-fed water supplies and rivers will become cut off from one another. The coastline needs trees, certainly, but also needs other natural areas preserved for the numerous animal species essential for the area to return to a more natural balance.
The tree seawall, of course, is more than a pragmatic, sensible return to nature. It is also a way of recovering spiritually. For many of those planting indigenous varieties of trees in what have become semi-regular ceremonies in the region, the symbolism of life starting anew from small saplings is also vital to recovery. That return to a view of nature as nurturing and supportive, as well as protective, will surely prove a better model for future safety than past approaches.