Rebuilding shattered lives

Three years on, life is still nowhere near back to normal for many of the people in the Tohoku coastal areas devastated by the massive earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear power plant disaster. Meanwhile, concerns grow that the events of March 11, 2011, are fast fading from the memories of people less affected by the disasters. The entire nation must face the realities still confronting people in the disaster-ravaged areas and keep the task of rebuilding their lives a top priority over the long term. We urge the government to accelerate reconstruction efforts by flexibly responding to displaced people’s needs.

Some progress has been made. Restoration of public infrastructure such as roads, riverbanks, railways, sewerage and tap water supply systems are roughly 90 percent complete. The removal of the mountains of debris that dotted the tsunami-swept areas are about to be finished in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, although efforts are lagging in Fukushima Prefecture due to the additional work of cleaning up the radiation fallout from the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.

Many of the port facilities of Miyagi and Iwate crippled by the tsunami have now been rebuilt and the hauls of fisheries industries there have returned to roughly 70 percent of the levels before the disasters. Due to the nuclear disaster, however, the catch by Fukushima fishermen lags behind pre-disaster levels.

In Miyagi, one of the nation’s leading rice-production areas, 90 percent of the farmland drenched in seawater by the tsunami has been restored for use through desalination.

On the other hand, while the number of evacuees has been reduced from the roughly 470,000 just after the disasters, some 267,000 people remain displaced from their hometowns. These evacuees either lost their homes in the tsunami, were forced to leave their communities due to the Fukushima No. 1 plant meltdowns or were voluntarily evacuated due to health concerns over the radiation fallout. Around 252,000 of these evacuees continue to live in small temporary housing units or apartments specially rented for them.

Efforts to rebuild tsunami-destroyed coastal communities by resettling residents on higher ground continue to be slow, while only 3 percent of the government projects to build public housing for evacuees have been completed. In the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, people who lost their homes were able to leave their temporary housing units within five years, but it remains unclear when the evacuees from the March 2011 disasters can return home.

The lengthy time away from home has taken a heavy toll on evacuees, particularly on the elderly. Nearly 3,000 people from Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures have either died from worsening health due to the mental and physical stress of the evacuation, or taken their own lives. About 90 percent of the victims are 66 years or older. In Fukushima, the number of deaths due to post-disaster causes has topped the number of people whose lives were claimed by the earthquake and tsunami. That the number of such deaths continues to rise three years on testifies to the severity of evacuees’ lives.

Around 135,000 people in Fukushima Prefecture alone remain displaced from their homes, nearly 48,000 of them living outside of the prefecture. The prefecture’s entire population has declined by 80,000 from the pre-disaster level. All residents of the municipalities hosting, or close to, the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant continue unable to return to their hometowns. This might remain the long-term fate for the tens of thousands of people whose homes are in areas where contamination levels are expected to stay high for years.

In April, part of the town of Tamura is set to become the first area within 20 km of the No. 1 plant where the evacuation advisory will be lifted, following the completion of the cleanup of radiation-contaminated soil by the government last summer. But radiation fears linger among some residents, who may choose not to return to the town. While the Abe administration says the situation at the Fukushima No. 1 plant is “under control,” the utility continues to struggle with how to manage the hundreds of tons of radiation-contaminated water that are produced each day through the process used to keep the melted down nuclear fuel cool. Work to decommission the crippled plant will take decades.

The government initially estimated that reconstruction from the March 2011 disasters would require at least ¥23 trillion over 10 years, and planned to spend ¥19 trillion in the first five years. The Abe administration later revised the spending quota to ¥25 trillion over five years, but the total budgetary allocation for reconstruction projects has already reached ¥23 trillion through fiscal 2014. Even as the budget allocation amounts balloon over initial plans, implementation of the reconstruction projects has been slowed by manpower and materials shortages in the disaster-hit areas and other problems. It is feared that preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will exacerbate the shortage of construction equipment, manpower and materials, further delaying post-disaster reconstruction.

It has also been revealed that part of the reconstruction budget was spent on projects unrelated to rebuilding the disaster-hit areas, including support for the nation’s whaling program and road construction in other parts of the country.

In a recent Kyodo News survey, a majority of the mayors in 42 municipalities in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures severely hit by the disasters said they feel that the reconstruction efforts are making either slow or no progress.

The government needs to maximize efficient use of the funds to accelerate reconstruction work. We urge the government to flexibly respond to the divergent and changing needs of the municipalities and local residents in the affected areas, rather than let bureaucratic rigidity prevent necessary projects from moving forward. Priority should be on rebuilding the lives of disaster victims and their communities.