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In a Jan. 23 plebiscite, voters in Tokushima City, Tokushima Prefecture, gave a thumbs down to a government project to build a gatelock dam on the Yoshino River. My opinion is that the project should be halted because residents do not want it. It’s as simple as that.

The river runs through two cities and six towns, of which Tokushima City has the largest population. Of its 207,284 registered voters about half, or 102,759, said no. The opponents think the existing dam will do if it is repaired.

Why not stop the project and build the kind of facility that residents really want? That is what ordinary people think. Repairs will cost much less than a new dam, so why go ahead and build one against the wishes of residents? Reality, however, is not that simple.

Dam construction began in 1966, when Tokushima Prefecture asked the Construction Ministry to repair the existing dam, which was reportedly built in 1752, in the middle of the Edo Period. In response, the ministry decided to dismantle the dam and build a new one 1.2 km downstream.

It was, however, 18 years later, in 1984, that feasibility studies began. Construction work started in earnest in 1991. One wonders whether the government really wanted to control flooding in the area. Luckily, the kind of disaster the ministry says happens once every 150 years has not occurred.

In the meantime, things changed significantly. In particular, major public-works projects came to a virtual standstill because of environmental concerns and funds shortages. The river law was amended in 1997 to make project implementation conditional on the consent of residents. Environmental assessment also became mandatory. As a result, large-scale development projects slowed down. That is only to be expected given the growing budget deficits and mounting environmental concerns.

Tokushima citizens rejected the project, partly because a gatelock dam would worsen the quality of river water and destroy the ecosystem, and partly because the Tokushima Prefectural Government and the districts on the river would have to share half of the project cost. What’s more, the maintenance cost would run to 700 million yen a year.

The program should be changed immediately if the outcome of the plebiscite is to be respected. But the Construction Ministry says it will be continued, although the possibility is left open that a better plan might be worked out with the support of residents. The ministry is even trying, or so it seems, to appease the opponents through “dialogue.” This suggests a measure of ambivalence on the part of the construction minister, the construction bureaucracy and even Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi; they all feel that residents’ opposition must be heeded, but at the same time they want to keep the project going.

Those in high places tend to make light of local plebiscites. But the Tokushima vote is particularly significant. Residents are often blamed for acting rashly. Public-works projects, they are told, are difficult to change once they get under way. Of course, I don’t think it’s right to decide everything by plebiscite. Nor do I think that public-works projects should be continued regardless of social changes. The rigid mechanism that controls public investment must be overhauled.

That said, I cannot help but feel strongly that the local assemblies involved did not function properly. It is up to an administrative unit — be it Tokushima City, Tokushima Prefecture or the Construction Ministry — to draw up a project, provided it is really needed. An assembly should check whether the project is reasonable, whether it is really good for the residents or whether it is an arbitrary decision by local authorities. Also, the legislature should see to it that residents’ wishes are translated into reality.

Tokushima’s politicians did not measure up to the residents’ expectations. That’s why a plebiscite was held. The result, predictably, was “no.” The assembly, which had approved the dam project, did not reflect the will of residents. Nor did administrative authorities, though they touted it as being good for the residents. Residents did not trust the whole project. The ballot reflected their distrust of both administrators and politicians.

This project should be changed promptly to one that reflects the wishes of residents. At the same time, all politicians who have been involved with the project since it started — members of the prefectural assembly, the municipal assembly and the Diet — should search their souls.

So far public-works projects — such as those for flood control — have been carried out with little regard for residents’ wishes. That kind of approach does not wash anymore. There are still old-type politicians who get votes for public-works pork barrel and who pride themselves on receiving red-carpet treatment in their constituencies. The nation does not need such politicians.

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