The waterworks are wearing out

A new government white paper estimates that the cost of maintaining and repairing Japan’s water infrastructure will become roughly ¥1 trillion annually from 2020. That’s a lot of money to support what Japanese consider a basic right to abundant fresh and clean water. Like the population, Japan’s water system is rapidly aging.

The recently released 2014 White Paper on Water Resources, put together by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, noted that the cost of replacing old pipes and upgrading equipment could be even higher. The ministry estimates that the total cost for replacing equipment will rise from ¥670 billion in fiscal 2010 to ¥970 billion in 2015, and go even higher thereafter.

Making things even worse, the needed repairs to the water system are arriving at roughly the same time. Most of the currently used equipment was installed from the 1950s to the 1970s. Because most pipes and equipment have a life span of about 40 years, most of the water infrastructure is now coming due for upgrading, replacement or repair.

Around 8.5 percent of water pipes passed the 40-year age limit in fiscal 2011. Roughly 10 to 20 percent will hit the age limit starting in 2020.

The problem is worsened by the increasing costs of repairing and replacing equipment every year. Because the water supply is managed by local government-run public corporations, budget shortages at the local level mean that water rates will have to rise. In many places, they already have. Although more and more households and companies are helpfully conserving water, the lower payments they make simply means less income for repairs.

In Japan, where clean water has been taken for granted, it’s hard to imagine the possibility of not having a bath at night or not having water to cook with. Though more people in cities are now drinking bottled water, providing safe, clean and affordable tap water is one of the most important, if often overlooked, functions of the central and local governments.

To continue the current water system conditions, the central government will need to supplement the budgets of local governments. Repairs and replacement of the system can also be done efficiently on a large scale and with careful planning rather than piecemeal by local governments, which have limited budgets and a shortage of experienced officials, too.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has spent many days this year traveling to countries where the water supply does not begin to match the level of Japan’s. Promoting Japanese business abroad is an admirable undertaking, but business, and life in general, depends on water. The current central government needs to pay more attention to the domestic supply of water.