National

Five years after Ontake eruption, half of Japan's municipalities near volcanoes lack escape plans

Kyodo

With the nation marking the fifth anniversary of the eruption of Mount Ontake that killed 58 people and left five others missing, a government survey shows about half of the municipalities near active volcanoes do not have evacuation plans in the event of an emergency.

Only 105 of the 190 cities, towns and villages in designated warning areas near Japan’s 49 volcanoes had compiled evacuation plans as of late July under a law that was revised in 2015 following the country’s deadliest postwar volcanic disaster, the Cabinet Office said recently.

The 3,067-meter-high Mount Ontake, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures, suddenly erupted without warning in 2014. The law revision was aimed at improving preparedness for such a situation by obliging local governments near volcanoes to draw up evacuation plans based on hazard maps and disaster scenarios.

But the municipalities have cited difficulties in drawing up the plans due to a lack of experts and data on past eruptions.

Three municipalities near Midagahara, a volcano in the Tateyama mountain range in Toyama Prefecture, aim to compile their evacuation plans by the end of next March.

However, a Toyama Prefectural Government official said, “We lack data and experience. The terrain characteristics differ by area so we cannot create a plan that is a ‘one-size-fits-all.'”

Midagahara is believed to have last erupted in 1836.

Among 30 municipalities in Aomori, Akita and Iwate prefectures located near the Towada volcanic area, only five have finalized evacuation plans.

“The last volcanic eruption occurred more than 1,000 years ago, and it is difficult to have a sense of urgency,” said an official from one of the prefectures.

A village near a different volcano has only one official responsible for disaster plans. “Measures against frequent floods and landslides are prioritized” over volcanic activities, the official said.

Some other municipalities have collaborated with mountain rescuers and guides as well as tourism facilities in boosting preparedness for any volcanic eruption.

In Nagano Prefecture, mountain guides and tourist agencies have been informing people about the tragedy at Mount Ontake.

The town of Nasu, located at the foot of Mount Nasu, in Tochigi Prefecture, drafted an evacuation plan following the advice of local rescuers.

An emergency route down the mountain in case of an evacuation, along an alternative route to what hikers usually use, was added to the plan thanks to their input.

The city of Beppu, Oita Prefecture, has distributed leaflets at local tourist attractions to inform visitors of features of Mount Tsurumi and items to take when hiking just in case of an eruption.

The number of refuge facilities prepared for hikers has also been rising, with 195 set up near 28 volcanoes as of 2018, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. The figure includes reinforced mountain huts and rest houses.

“There are few experts in each region to keep an eye on local volcanoes, making it very difficult for municipalities to seek advice in making plans for the eventuality of a volcanic eruption,” said Takayoshi Iwata, a professor at Shizuoka University who is well-versed in volcanic disasters.

He said it is necessary to create a professional organization involving experts from universities, the Meteorological Agency and the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Resilience.