Protecting the water cycle

The Diet has enacted a basic law on the water cycle, which is set to take effect by July. The legislation, submitted by a supra-partisan group of lawmakers, aims to maintain and restore the water cycle — the constant movement of water above, on and below the surface of the earth in the form of vapor, rain or snowfall, rivers, lakes, aquifers and oceans — in this country.

Disruption to this cycle could result in water shortages or declines in water quality. Water shortage is already a serious issue in many other countries. On the strength of the basic law, the government needs to adopt concrete measures so that Japan can continue to secure a sufficient amount of clean water, which is indispensable in ensuring a healthy life for people and a vigorous pursuit of economic activities.

At present the administration of water is segmented among different government organizations. Rivers and sewerage systems are under the jurisdiction of the land and infrastructure ministry; headwater areas in mountains under the Forestry Agency; agricultural water under the farm ministry; city tap water under the health and welfare ministry; and water for industrial use under the trade and industry ministry. This reflects the lack of a system for protecting the nation’s water resources from the viewpoint of the water cycle.

The basic law calls for setting up a policy headquarters on water-related issues at the Cabinet level, which will be tasked to write a basic plan to keep the natural movement of water in smooth conditions. Policy coordination among the government bodies concerned is needed to work out a comprehensive policy to achieve the law’s goal.

In recent years, Japan has seen increasing purchases of forest land in headwater areas by foreign capital — in particular Chinese capital. This has raised alarms over the preservation of the nation’s water resources, with concerns growing among local governments in those areas that public use of underground water beneath the purchased land could be blocked.

According to the Forestry Agency, foreign capital bought up 800 hectares of forest land in 68 cases in Hokkaido and other prefectures including Nagano, Gunma and Kanagawa from 2006 to 2012, raising fears that spring sources and underground water in headwater areas could be controlled by these parties. There have also been reported cases in which foreign capital uses the names of Japanese citizens in the purchase.

By establishing by-laws, some local governments have made it obligatory for purchasers of headwater areas to indicate in advance whether they plan to exploit ground water resources. Others have introduced a licensing system for pumping underground water.

But the basic law falls short of meeting local governments’ demand to legally define ground water as common public property. The law merely says that the public nature of water resources make it an important common asset.

The central government needs to go further and enact a law to provide a legal background for local governments’ attempt to prevent excessive pumping of ground water by private-sector businesses. Financial support for local government efforts to purchase private land in headwater areas should also be considered.

There are many other issues that the central and local governments must jointly tackle in managing water resources. In urban areas, pavement prevents rain water from seeping into the ground, disrupting the water cycle. Efforts to recycle rain water for flushing toilets or watering plants have so far been left in the hands of municipalities or commissioned businesses. The basic law calls for a unified approach for preservation of the water cycle in each basin, but such efforts require better coordination if a basin spreads across more than one prefecture, as in the case of the Tone River in the Kanto region and Yodo River in Kansai.

As torrential downpours become more common due to changing weather patterns caused by global warming, flood control other than dams should be an option.

The central and local governments should quickly set up systems conducive to finding effective solutions for protecting water resources and quality. Environment groups and other nongovernmental organizations are strongly encouraged to participate fully in these efforts.