Staff writer SHIMOSUWA, Nagano Pref. — It began raining heavily around 1 p.m. on Jun. 29, 1999. Startled by a strange sound from a nearby river, Koichi Kato approached the bank to see a dirty torrent swelling up to only 30 cm below the edge of the embankment.

Takehito Tomono, an 86-year-old resident of Shimosuwa, Nagano Prefecture, points out where the Togawa River peaked during heavy rains in 1989.

The roar of the current, carrying earth and rocks, continued even after the sun set.

“If the rain had continued one more hour, I think (the embankment) would have collapsed,” recalled Kato, who works at a beauty salon in Shimosuwa, a small town in southern Nagano Prefecture.

Despite that experience, Kato said he is still unsure whether he supports the prefecture’s controversial project to build a flood-control dam at an upper branch of the Togawa River.

“I don’t know if the dam can prevent flooding. I don’t want to lose the rich nature (of this town), either,” he said, adding that he often enjoys walking along the banks of the Togawa River, its clean water shimmering quietly on a sunny day.

Kato is not the only one to feel at a loss in this town of 23,960 people on the north shore of Lake Suwa.

For the past five years, disputes over the 24 billion yen project to build a 71-meter-high concrete dam have split the town.

And now, with Gov. Yasuo Tanaka’s famous “No-dam declaration,” the Shimosuwa dam project has become a centerpiece of rising nationwide debate over the validity of continuing the country’s numerous dam projects.

On Feb. 20, Tanaka declared that Nagano Prefecture will build no more concrete dams of 15 meters in height or higher, claiming the huge structures are environmentally harmful as well as a financial burden on future generations.

One of seven dam projects in their early stages, the Shimosuwa dam was the only one the governor specifically named for cancellation in his declaration.

The declaration came as a blessing for antidam residents in the town. They had been calling for the project to be scrapped, arguing that the 71-meter-high dam would destroy the surrounding forests, dirty drinking water and waste taxpayers’ money.

“Nobody has been killed in (floods along the river) on record. I’m convinced we can (prevent devastating flooding) by strengthening embankments and dredging the river,” said Dr. Hideo Takei, a local surgeon and leader of the anti-Shimosuwa dam movement.

People living along the embankment find themselves on less certain ground, although many of them are still unsure if the dam is the best choice to reduce the risk of flooding.

Takehito Tomono, 86, eagerly supports the project. Three generations of his family — his grandfather, father and himself — have all suffered from flooding.

“The house of my grandfather was washed away, and paddies belonging to my father and me were flooded,” said Tomono, who lives near the Iodo-bashi Bridge over the Togawa River.

He recalls the subsiding waters leaving his paddies ruined and strewn with sand and rocks, as well as the time it took to clean up the damage.

“If there is some way other than a dam, that’s OK. But there’s no choice but a dam,” he said.

One alternative way to control flooding, according to Gov. Tanaka, is to widen the river to allow for a greater volume of water, a measure that requires the relocation of 210 households and seven bridges.

But Tomono and many others call such a measure unrealistic, pointing to the difficulty in gaining the support of those who would be relocated and finding alternative residences for them.

“I don’t think it’s possible. Nobody is willing to move away,” said Yuki Fujimaki, 56.

Living in a house perched on the edge of the river for 15 years, she shuddered as she recalled two occasions when water threatened to top the embankment. But even she is not sure if she wants the dam.

“I want nature here preserved. I really don’t know what to say,” she said when asked if she supported Tanaka’s decision to suspend the project.

The Nagano Prefectural Assembly, on the other hand, knows exactly what it wants.

Slamming the governor’s abrupt announcement, the assembly revised a draft budget for fiscal 2001 submitted by Tanaka to include 229 million yen for the Shimosuwa dam. It was the first alteration to a governor’s budget draft in 48 years.

The assembly’s move probably came as a relief not only to prodam residents in Shimosuwa but also to municipal officials of the neighboring city of Okaya.

Okaya has been involved with the project from its planning stage, committing itself to shoulder part of the construction costs in return for securing 10,000 tons of tap water a day from the newly created reservoir.

Currently, 83 percent of the city’s industrial and drinking water comes from 16 wells and four springs.

Five of the 16 wells, however, have been contaminated with trichloroethylene, a carcinogenic chemical that was widely used at numerous small precision device factories in the city. In two of those wells, the chemical exceeds government-set safety levels for drinking water.

Antidam activists say the city has no need to worry because its water supply capacity currently exceeds actual demand by 2,000 tons a day due to dwindling demand amid the nation’s economic slowdown.

Municipal officials, however, insist on the need to secure a stable water supply at this stage, saying harmful chemicals could be detected at any of the remaining wells in the future.

In Shimosuwa, Tanaka, who won a landslide victory in the gubernatorial election in October by advocating open decision-making by residents, is still popular.

But many in the town complain that he hasn’t sufficiently explained why he singled out the Shimosuwa dam project for cancellation, and what alternative measures he has in mind to prevent flooding and ensure a stable water supply.

In his declaration, Tanaka gave a general explanation on the damage a dam brings to the environment. But he has yet to provide reasons for wanting to scrub the Shimosuwa dam project.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.