Japan has 30,000 rivers, of which 113 are considered major. Japan also has half a million dams of various shapes, sizes and functions, and close to 3,000 of them were built for greater public purposes such as power generation, flood control and water supply.

Japan is the most dammed country in the world, which indirectly says a lot about its reliance on public works for economic stimulation. Nevertheless, the majority of Japanese citizens know very little about the politics and science of water control.

Last fall, when the newly empowered Democratic Party of Japan targeted the Yamba Dam project in Gunma Prefecture as a kind of test skirmish for its war on wasteful public works spending, the media focused on whether or not the DPJ was bullying the affected people, who have been struggling with the dam project for 57 years. Land minister Seiji Maehara said the government was scrapping the project and the people in the village of Naganohara protested loudly. The media sympathized, in particular television news shows, which characterized Maehara as being a cold government hit man.

Last month Maehara decided that the land ministry would still build the dam-related bridge to the “alternative land” where the residents of Naganohara were to be resettled. With the dam canceled, resettlement isn’t really necessary, but there’s not much of a viable population left in Naganohara, once a rustic hot spring resort. In the 1970s, most residents opposed the dam construction, but the central and prefectural governments wore them down by using a common bureaucratic carrot-and-stick approach: Withholding services while at the same time offering compensation above the value of their property as well as new roads and other amenities.

By the time the DPJ canceled the dam, the younger portion of Naganohara’s population had taken the money and left. The hot spring resort, not to mention the few farms in the area, was dead because it relied on a community that no longer existed. The remaining households resented the cancellation: What had their sacrifice been for? That is the question the media has played up, and to their credit they have done a fairly thorough job of showing how the various government bodies involved in the Yamba Dam project have jockeyed for influence and money, even if they haven’t spelled out why it was a bad idea in the first place.

The dam’s original purpose seemed irreproachable. In 1947, the Kasurin Typhoon caused floods that killed 1,100 people in six Kanto area prefectures. The original plan was to build a series of 10 dams upriver to control the water in the case of another typhoon of that size, which experts said occurs once every 200 years. Yamba was only the first dam. The flood control functions envisioned for the project are ineffective unless the other nine dams are also built, and they haven’t even been started yet.

Many experts have said that in terms of preparing for floods, building dams is less effective and more costly than reinforcing levees and devising proper evacuation plans, but in any case as the government’s scheme for Yamba Dam proceeded the dam’s function changed.

Over time, the central government blackmailed five prefectures into paying for part of the dam construction by holding their rights to water from the Tone River hostage, even though Yamba Dam is not necessary to ensure water supply to these prefectures. Tokyo, which has contributed ¥40 billion to the project, consumes 4.92 million tons of water a day out of the 6.3 million tons a day that’s available to it. Saitama gets most of its water from aquifers. However, the land ministry controls water rights and they told these local governments they couldn’t guarantee supply unless they contributed to the Yamba Dam construction. When the DPJ canceled the project, the five governors were up in arms. They either wanted the dam or their money back.

When the project was halted, the media reported that it was 70 percent finished, but what that meant was that 70 percent of the budget had been spent. Construction of the dam itself had barely progressed, but in the meantime compensation to the residents had increased more than threefold, and of the ¥148.6 billion supplied by the five prefectures, ¥89.3 billion had to be returned by law if the dam was canceled. All in all, it is estimated that the central government needs an additional ¥201 billion just to stop the project.

Fiscal purists claim that the economic stimulus provided by dam construction is enough of a reason to continue the project, but it is now common knowledge that dams destroy ecosystems not only in the places where they are built but far downstream as well. The United States has been busy dismantling its existing dams for that very reason.

The Arase Dam in Kumamoto Prefecture is one of the few major Japanese dams set to be dismantled. Completed in 1955, it has, according to local residents, exacerbated floods rather than alleviate them and wiped out the fish in that stretch of the Kuma River. Moreover, it stinks. The dam is more expensive to maintain than to destroy, but someone will still have to pay to tear it down. Since it was originally a local project, that money will have to be found locally.

The media has shown no interest in Arase Dam, probably because the original controversy was based on its environmental impact. With Yamba it’s all about money. The DPJ has never had any problem with the likely harmful environmental effects of Yamba Dam, only with its cost. But former Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka, a pioneer in the antidam movement, produced a lively video about the environmental implications of Yamba Dam and put it on YouTube on March 27. As a media celebrity, he’s at least as big as Seiji Maehara, but the subject apparently isn’t sexy enough. As of April 5, the video had 386 hits, and three of those were mine.

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