• Kyodo

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Kumamoto Prefecture approved Thursday the restart of a decades-old controversial dam construction project that was halted 11 years ago, following the deadly flooding of a major local river triggered by torrential rains in July.

Kumamoto Gov. Ikuo Kabashima said during a prefectural assembly meeting that he gave the green light to the central government plan to build a dam on the Kawabe River, the main branch of the flood-hit Kuma River, withdrawing his earlier opposition to the project over environmental concerns.

“I’ve accepted people’s wishes to protect both lives and the environment. These wishes are what made my decision,” the governor said.

The July disaster, which claimed 65 lives and flooded at least 6,000 houses in the prefecture, has reignited a debate on whether to build a dam on the Kawabe River to protect the region against flooding. The project was first proposed by the central government in 1966.

“I feel great responsibility,” said Kabashima, referring to the victims and damage from the July disaster, which occurred while flood control measures remained in limbo.

After the meeting, Kabashima told a press conference that the torrential rains made him change his stance and give consent to the dam construction project.

Instead of a conventional reservoir-style dam, Kabashima suggested the state will build a flood retention dam that is environmentally friendly and stores water only in the event of flooding with open outlets.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a press conference, “The government will take into account the views of the governor and the prefecture for (choosing) the best action.”

Kabashima is scheduled to meet with Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Kazuyoshi Akaba on Friday.

Local opinion has been divided. Advocates voiced the need for flood control, while opponents including residents of municipalities along the Kawabe River argued that the dam would spoil the pristine water of the river system.

“If the water quality deteriorates, it would strike a heavy blow to the tourism industry,” said Kentaro Oishi, 50, who runs rafting tours on the Kuma River. “I could lose my job,” he added.

Meanwhile, Itsuko Minoda, whose house was destroyed by the rain disaster, said, “We should build a dam if it would alleviate damage caused by flooding.” The 63-year-old moved to temporary housing in Hitoyoshi following the downpour.

In October, the land ministry presented an estimate that the area that was flooded, which included Hitoyoshi near the Kuma River, “could have been reduced by about 60%” with a dam.

In 2008, Kabashima called on the state to scrap the dam project based on objections from local leaders. In the following year, the government led by the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan halted the project.

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