YATSUSHIRO, KUMAMOTO PREF. - Shoko Tsuru happily watched a multitude of tiny bubbles appearing on the surface of mud flats at the mouth of the Kuma River.
The bubbles show that the mud flats are “living” with various creatures.
“There used to be only mud here, but now sand is mixed and living things have greatly changed,” she said, explaining the revival of the mud flats in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture.
Tsuru, 64, is a “nature conservation educator” authorized in 1990 by the Nature Conservation Society of Japan, a public interest incorporated foundation, and one of the key figures in the long-running campaign to remove the Arase Dam upstream on the Kuma River.
The control gate at the dam, built in 1955 for hydroelectric power, was opened in 2010 and demolition began last year. The full process will take six years.
The river mouth, some 20 km downriver from the dam, has drastically changed and become a viable feeding place for clams and green laver, a type of seaweed.
The removal of the Arase Dam, the first time something like this has been undertaken in Japan, is drawing keen attention both at home and abroad on how nature will react.
A South Korean TV crew recently came to Yatsushiro to interview Tsuru.
Pak Yung-sik, producer of the team from Korean Broadcasting System, said South Korea is facing environmental disruptions caused by dams that were built without ecological assessments under an economic stimulus project by President Lee Myung-bak, who held office from 2008 until last February.
“We’re paying attention to effects from the removal of the Arase Dam and the civil movement that has realized it,” Pak said.
Tsuru said, however, she is frustrated about what has happened since removal of the Arase Dam has started.
On weekends, hundreds of people visit the mud flats and collect sea creatures.
“I wonder if any rules can be set, such as a ban on gathering small clams, or establishment of sanctuaries,” Tsuru said.
She also said her work will continue until there are no longer any obstructions on the Kuma River, as the Setoishi Dam still lies upstream.
“Dams and other structures built on a river should be removed because they disrupt the traffic of eels and sweet fish, and halt the cycle of sand and nutritive substances,” she said.
While Tsuru started the dam removal campaign, the local fishery cooperative, which has the right to fish in the Kuma, played an important role that led to the removal of the Arase Dam and cancellation of a plan to build a dam on the Kawabe, a side stream of the Kuma.
Tsuru visited the cooperative and persuaded it to oppose the dams on the Kuma, arranged lectures by experts to educate local people, and studied environmental effects of the dams, in the process revealing faulty data provided by the central government.
“I was dragged into the movement by Tsuru,” said Masatsugu Mori, a 73-year-old former official at the cooperative.
Tsuru was born into the family of a doctor in the city of Miyazaki and became a pharmacist after graduating from college. After getting married, she opened a pharmacy in Yatsushiro in 1974.
She recognized a steep increase in inquiries about allergic rhinitis and atopic dermatitis. “I thought something was wrong about what people were eating and began to study questions related to water and food,” she said.
As a pharmacist for local schools, Tsuru was commissioned to examine water discharged from golf courses and manufacturing plants, and she started to pay attention to pollution. She decided that something had to be done to protect children’s health.
Tsuru took her three children to mountains, rivers and beaches on weekends and was particularly attracted by mud flats, where an “unbelievably” large number of living creatures existed, she recalled.
But she also witnessed successive disruptions of nature due to forest roads and other construction projects.
“I wouldn’t permit the destruction of nature that should be left for future generations,” Tsuru stressed.