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Last Sunday night I settled down to watch one of my favorite TV shows, “Tokumei Research 200X” (NTV, 7:58 p.m.), quite unprepared for what I was about to learn. If you’ve never seen this particular information program, it is built around the fictional Far East Research Center, a shiny mission control for designer-suited computer nerds who conduct in-depth research into any subject the TV audience requests through a special Web site set up by the producer.

The presentation of the research results is almost comically even-handed, utilizing rapid-fire, deadpan narration and a slick Internet-style graphic mode that jumps from one idea to the next through a linklike process. If the topic is about airline crashes, you eventually learn not only about some famous crashes, but also all theories behind the causes of the crashes and their scientific basis. Along the way, you’ll learn about aerodynamics and weather patterns.

The program on June 17 was mostly about water shortages, starting with the various climate-related reasons for droughts and how Japan, with its mountainous terrain, is particularly susceptible since runoff from mountain to river is extremely fast owing to the steep grade. Most rainfall goes straight into the sea.

From that point they showed that, despite Japan’s propensity for dam-building, the country’s reservoirs are chronically inefficient. Even worse, statistics show that with each successive year annual rainfall is decreasing. Though you may hate the rainy season and typhoons, they are vital to the archipelago’s ecological health.

The dire tenor of the report took on alarming specificity when they started in on the worst-case scenario: a drought and how it would affect Tokyo. Gradually, water service would be cut back and then stopped. Water would be distributed by trucks (it happened before, back in the ’70s). Restaurants, without water to clean dishes, would close first. Large corporations, which require lots of water to cool their supercomputers, would cut back on operations.

Smaller businesses would go under in a matter of days. Hospitals would have to close. In the end, people would pack up and go to stay with relatives in the countryside, where the shortage would be less acute. It would be like World War II without the war.

The FERC predicted that all the climate conditions were in place for a serious drought this summer, but in the end they said that the amount of water wasted by Tokyo households right now would be more than sufficient to tide the city over during the projected dry spell. In other words, urban water shortages are caused as much by people as they are by the weather.

Shaken and sobered, I turned to NHK at 9 to see another, very different report on water-related disasters. That evening’s “NHK Special” was about the flooding that hit Nagoya’s Tenpaku Ward last September, killing nine people and causing more than 900 billion yen in damage. Something like 500 ml of rain fell on the area in a single day, sending 1-meter-deep rivers coursing through the streets.

NHK analyzed the cause of the flood in detail, using sophisticated computer graphics to illustrate the more technically difficult points. The overriding concern is why residents were not evacuated and countermeasures not put in place to deal with such a disaster. As it turns out, Japanese standards for flood management have not kept up with the effects that urbanization has had on drainage. Most cities’ flood-management facilities (pumps, storm sewers, etc.) are built to handle up to 150 ml a day. NHK showed a computer simulation of what would happen if the same amount of rain fell in Tokyo as it had in Nagoya last year. Marunouchi would be submerged under 1 meter of running water (thus shutting down all facilities since almost all the buildings in the area keep their electrical equipment in the sub-basements) and Suginami Ward covered with 2 meters.

The only good thing about natural disasters is that they teach us what to do the next time, but one of the more unsettling revelations of the NHK program was a report issued by Tokyo disaster-management officials that advised caution with regards to warning residents about possible flood dangers — since such warnings might adversely affect property values.

One Tokyo official, however, stated on the air that soon this policy will change and that they will become more forthright about the possibility of floods and early warnings, because “people’s lives” are more important than property values.

At first glance the projections made in the two programs seem to contradict each other — not enough water as opposed to too much of it — but in my mind, at least, they were complementary. Both the fictional FERC and the very real NHK gave evidence that the problems associated with their respective reports can be blamed on poor planning and insufficient communications. In fact, nothing in either program gave me the impression that urban flooding and urban water shortages can’t happen in the same season. As worst-case scenarios go, you can’t beat that.

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