One of the most common received truths about Japan is that it lacks natural resources, which is why it relies so much on imports. Lack of resources was one of the reasons Japan invaded Asia in the last century. But there is one resource that is plentiful, and which is becoming scarce in other regions: water.

In fact, there has been talk that Japan could export fresh water as a form of “security.” Japan currently buys a lot of coal from Australia, which is delivered by ship. Those vessels return to Australia empty, and usually have to fill up with sea water for ballast, a risky solution since the water could contain living things that might upset marine ecology systems back in Australia. But the ships could also fill up with fresh water — not necessarily drinking water, but water that could be used in the mining of the coal being sent to Japan. Coal mining requires a lot of water, and Australia doesn’t always have enough.

It’s estimated that 900 million people in the world do not have ready access to safe drinking water, so Japan should count itself lucky. However, in recent years water supply agencies nationwide have been raising fees or proposing to raise fees on tap water.

The reason has to do with Japan’s population decline. The infrastructure that processes water and delivers it to homes is superannuated in many places in Japan, but since revenues are dropping due to loss of users, local water supply agents don’t have enough money to repair and maintain these facilities.

An article in the Asahi Shimbun on Sept. 7 looked at the town of Bibai in Hokkaido, which has announced that it is raising water-use fees by 30 percent this month, the first time it has done so in 33 years. If a household uses 10 cu. meters of water a month, it now pays ¥2,547. That fee will increase by ¥567. Before the war, the town was very prosperous because of a coal mine, and population peaked in 1956 at 92,000. Now it is down to 24,000, and the pipe network that moves water through the town is desperately in need of repair.

Residential users may not feel as much pain, but business users are quite worried about the increase. One restaurant owner in Bibai told the paper that he now spends almost ¥600,000 a year for water, and with the fee increase he expects his bill to go up by more than ¥100,000.

Bibai’s situation is typical of many towns and smaller cities throughout Japan. Because water supply agents cover specific areas, their revenue is limited by the number of users in that area. If there are many users, then costs for repair and maintenance can be spread more diffusely, but if the number of users is small, each one will have to bear more of the cost.

A recent feature in the weekly magazine Shukan Josei reports that reservoir repair and maintenance costs for Tokyo’s water supply are the highest in Japan, but fees are among the lowest because of the number of users — about 10,000 per kilometer of pipe. Residents of Sendai and Sapporo, on the other hand, pay significantly higher fees for water because of the much smaller population density — in some neighborhoods as low as 100 users per kilometer of pipe. Bibai is now trying to consolidate its water supply agents with those in nearby towns, so that a larger pool of users can be tapped for revenues, thus reducing the per-user cost of repairs and maintenance.

Another reason for the difference in fees is geology. The most expensive water, according to the Japan arm of accounting firm Ernst & Young Global Ltd., is in the town of Fukaura in Aomori Prefecture, where the average household is expected to pay more than ¥17,000 a month by 2040. Population decline is one reason, but the town is also very hilly, so the waterworks system needs lots of pumps to deliver water to a relatively small number of households.

Of course, water abundance is also a factor. Kagawa, on the island of Shikoku, is one of the few prefectures that regularly suffers water shortages. Farmers on Shikoku traditionally grew wheat rather than rice, since rice requires so much water. The prefecture is now working on unifying the water supply agents of at least six cities so that they can reduce personnel and facilities expenses and thus not have to raise fees as much.

The central government is also getting involved by identifying some 8,000 “simple water supply” (kan’i suidō) agents. Simple water supply agents are those who serve a user base that is not larger than 5,000 households. By identifying such agents, the government hopes to move them toward consolidating with neighboring agents, since the central government is required to subsidize waterworks in order to guarantee delivery of water.

This happened in Shimane Prefecture, where smaller municipalities needed ¥2.1 billion a year for waterworks maintenance. Fees, however, only covered 30 percent of the maintenance expenses, so the government had to come up with the rest. Now, seven of these municipalities will merge their water networks with that of the capital, Matsue, with the help of the central government.

Nevertheless, some municipalities are shrinking so fast that soon they will not be able to afford waterworks at all. Some agents may not be able to stay in business, regardless of how much they raise fees. That means the few households in their jurisdictions will have to actually transport water themselves, by vehicle.

Another solution to the fee problem is conservation. Though Japan has abundant fresh water, the Japan Water Works Association is encouraging users to save water as much as possible. This will not only reduce their water bills, but ease the stress on the system, since there is less need for purifying chemicals and other treatments.

The average person in Japan uses 250 liters a day. One of the reasons people here use such a large amount is that they tend to take daily baths, sometimes more than once. Switching to showers and changing toilet valves would help save water.

To understand how lucky Japan is, all you have to do is look at a place like California, which, due to geology and climate-related developments, may never again have enough water for all its residents, no matter how wealthy they are. If higher fees are necessary to keep Japan’s water supply clean and plentiful, then that’s just the way it is.

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. For related online content, see blog.japantimes.co.jp/yen-for-living.

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.